North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship - expanded funding

NC Opportunity Scholarship: FAQ for Private School Leaders

In October 2023, North Carolina expanded eligibility for the Opportunity Scholarship lottery program, which provides families with funding assistance to cover K-12 private school tuition at a school of their choice. The updated act will lead to several changes beginning in the 2024-2025 school year. 

In response to this revised legislation, we received many questions from independent school administrators and admissions staff about program requirements and implications for the future. Here are the top frequently asked questions about the NC Opportunity Scholarship program and what we know right now.

Tuition Restrictions and Funding Allocation Questions

NC Opportunity Scholarship funds are transferred electronically to a participating school of a selected family’s choosing. Students with an Opportunity Scholarship must attend a school that accepts direct payments, set up through a voided check or bank memo to the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority (NCSEAA).

The NCSEAA website does not indicate any tuition restrictions. However, all schools that participate in the Opportunity Scholarship program are required to submit a tuition and fee schedule annually.

Yes, according to NCSEAA, Opportunity Scholarship award offer notifications will be provided in late April. The Opportunity Scholarship application for the 2024-2025 school year will open on Feb. 1, 2024.

First priority is given to students who received a scholarship the previous year. Beginning in late January, families who received funding the previous school year will receive an offer to renew their child’s scholarship, and they have until Oct. 1 to renew. Then, new NC Opportunity Scholarship applications received by March 1 are prioritized, with eligible applications assigned an award tier based on household size and income. It’s important to note that scholarships are awarded per student. 

In the 2022-2023 school year alone, more than 25,000 students were awarded funding, with additional families on wait lists. You can get an idea of the number of students receiving scholarships and total award amounts in your county by viewing NCSEAA’s data map.

Eligibility and Income Criteria Questions

Students who received funding the previous year renew their funding before the lottery takes place. New scholarship applications are entered in a random lottery, with scholarships granted in order of award tier, to the extent that funds are available. 

According to NCSEAA, the lottery proceeds in this order:

  1. Award Tier 1 students are offered an Opportunity Scholarship in order of lottery number.
  2. Award Tier 2 students are offered an Opportunity Scholarship in order of lottery number.
  3. Award Tier 3 and then Tier 4 students are offered an Opportunity Scholarship in order of lottery number, assuming funds remain.

Students who do not receive an award are added to a waitlist.

NCSEAA publishes household income eligibility guidelines each year, which determine a student’s scholarship amount, or award tier. 

As an example, for the 2024-2025 school year, if selected, an applicant with a family size of four and a total household income greater than $57,720 but less than $115,440 could be eligible for $6,722 towards the cost of tuition at a participating nonpublic school, not to exceed the cost of tuition.

Scholarships range from approximately $3,000-$7,000.

Starting in the 2024-2025 school year, all K-12 North Carolina families will be eligible to apply for the scholarship regardless of income, subject to income award tier guidelines and funding availability. This is a change to guidelines from previous years.

Yes, starting in the 2024-2025 school year, prior public school enrollment is no longer a requirement for eligibility for the scholarship.

Testing and Accountability Questions

Test requirement details on the NCSEAA website do not specify minimum test score requirements, only that “tests must have been normed within the last ten years.”

Exams must be nationally standardized and measure achievement in these areas: 

  • Grades 3-8: English, grammar, reading, spelling, and mathematics 
  • Grades 9-12: Exams must measure either achievement in the areas of English grammar, reading, spelling, and mathematics or competencies in the verbal and quantitative areas.   

Examples of tests that may be given include TerraNova, the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, and the Stanford Achievement Test. For more information about standardized testing, consult the North Carolina Division of Nonpublic Education (DNPE).

Individual schools seem to have some flexibility in choosing tests, provided they use accepted standardized exams that assess students as outlined above. However, not all tests measure achievement or competency in the necessary areas. As such, they may not meet the testing requirements for the NC Opportunity Scholarship program. NCSEAA suggests contacting your test vendor to confirm that tests contain all the subject areas in which students should be evaluated.

Independent School Participation Questions

Though additional conditions may need to be met in certain cases, these are the most common requirements for all independent schools participating in the NC Opportunity Scholarship program.

  • Tuition and Fee Schedule: All schools that participate in the Opportunity Scholarship program are required to submit a tuition and fee schedule annually, due by June 30 for new schools or July 15 for returning schools, regardless of whether they will have program recipients enrolled in their school for the year in which the schedule is being requested. 

  • Test Scores: Direct Payment Schools that received funding for students in third grade or higher will need to submit test scores for the previous year by July 15. Schools with 25 or more scholarship recipients will also need to submit an aggregate report.

  • Graduation Data: Schools must report which Opportunity Scholarship recipients completed the requirements for a high school diploma or its equivalent at the end of each school year by July 15.

  • Financial Review: All schools enrolling 70 or more students who use scholarship funds for at least one semester during the academic year must contract with a Certified Public Accountant to perform a financial review, consistent with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. The financial review must be submitted within 120 days of the end of your school’s fiscal year.

Original Opportunity Scholarship legislation included a statement in the General Statutes indicating that Opportunity Scholarship monies were not considered as accepting money from the state, according to Education Specialist and former Executive Director of the North Carolina Christian School Association, Joe Haas, Ed.D. That said, schools may be required to meet certain regulations as a condition of receiving Opportunity Scholarship monies. Currently, requirements for a school’s participation in the program are specific to tuition and fee schedules, test scores, graduation data, and financial review, as outlined above.

While we can’t make predictions of future requirements, factors that could have an impact on this might include the state’s legislative priorities, public opinion, and educational policy developments. To stay updated on any potential changes to the program’s requirements, regularly check official sources like the North Carolina Division of Nonpublic Education, or consult with relevant state authorities or education advocacy groups.

While the NC Opportunity Scholarship program provides eligible K-12 families with private school tuition vouchers, unused funds from one year can carry over to the next for scholarship use. If not spent within one fiscal year, the monies revert back to the General Fund.

Beginning in the 2024–2025 school year, NC Opportunity Scholarship funding will be appropriated at $191,540,000. In 2025-2026, funding increases to $415,540,000, rising annually by $15,000,000 through 2032, with $520,540,000 projected beginning in the 2032-2033 fiscal year and for each one thereafter.

While families may qualify for Opportunity Scholarship funding, they must still undergo a school’s admissions process. Qualifying for the Opportunity Scholarship does not guarantee enrollment in a school. Additionally, continued enrollment is dependent on the endorsement of both the school and the family.

Yes, the ESA+ program is designed for families of students with disabilities who require special education as documented by a North Carolina public school IEP eligibility determination. ESA+ each eligible child $9,000 in annual funding, and up to $17,000 a year in some cases based on specific disability. Funds may be used to pay tuition and fees for eligible private schools and for expenses such as tutoring services, educational technology, and speech therapy.

Start-Up School Questions 

North Carolina doesn’t currently require schools to be accredited to take part in the Opportunity Scholarship program.

New schools must first register with the DNPE. Then they can submit a signup request with NCSEAA to participate in the Opportunity Scholarship program. Additionally, the school’s highest decision-making authority must submit to a national criminal background check. 

If your school is approved, you will need to log in to NCSEAA’s MyPortal platform to submit your remaining registration documents. View NCSEAA’s registration checklist for all the required documents.

New school registration begins in late January and ends June 15 each year. (Requests submitted after June 15 will be held until registration opens the following January.)

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The content on this website, current as of the publication date, is based on North Star Marketing’s research and understanding of existing legislation in North Carolina. Although we aim for accuracy, laws and regulations are subject to change and various interpretations. This information is for general guidance only and should not be taken as legal, financial, or professional advice. North Star Marketing is not liable for any errors, omissions, or actions taken based on this content. Readers should seek advice from qualified professionals for their specific needs. References to third-party entities are not endorsements, and we are not responsible for the accuracy of external links provided.

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