May 8, 2021

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It's Your Education

NC House backs increasing private school voucher amount

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North Carolinians disagree about the effectiveness of the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program.

Observer file photo

North Carolina Republican lawmakers are moving ahead with plans to increase how much taxpayer money families can get to cover their private-school tuition costs.

The state House voted 69-49 on Tuesday to approve legislation that would increase the $4,200 annual amount provided to students who receive school vouchers, or Opportunity Scholarships. Supporters said House Bill 32 would make it easier for lower-income families to have the same educational opportunities as families who have greater financial means.

“The state owes students a constitutional sound basic education,” said Rep. Dean Arp, a Union County Republican and primary sponsor of the bill. “The state, in its wisdom, has chosen multiple avenues to achieve that, and I ask you to support this to provide equity to these families.”

The vote went along party lines with all Republicans voting yes and all Democrats voting no. Several Democrats argued that the legislation would take away money that could be used to help educate students in public schools.

“If we start siphoning off public money to private schools here and there and here and there, we’re going to weaken public schools., and most of the people who look like me are going to be in public schools,” said Rep. Abe Jones, who is Black and a Wake County Democrat. “Private schools will never, ever reach them in any kind of way.”

The legislation now goes to the Senate, where GOP leaders have their own larger plan for increasing access to private schools.

Are private schools unaccountable?

An amendment by Rep. Rachel Hunt, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, to say that students who receive scholarships should take a common test was defeated. Hunt said the test is needed to help assess the effectiveness of the program.

“Currently our state has a constitutional obligation to ensure that every student has access to a sound basic education,” Hunt said. “If the state is going to provide public funding to support the education of students at nonpublic schools, then the state is responsible for ensuring that those students are receiving a sound basic education as well.”

But Republicans argued the new test is unneeded because private schools already give standardized tests to their students. Arp also said that the ultimate accountability rests with parents who can leave the private school if they’re not satisfied with the education.

“I think it’s unconscionable that we’re debating low-wealth families having these educational opportunities afforded to them under the false guise that there’s no accountability,” Arp said. “That’s a red herring.”

Voucher program controversial

The Opportunity Scholarship program has been controversial since it was created in 2014. This year, the program is providing $60.6 million to 15,970 students to attend private schools.

Last year, lawmakers approved changes such as increasing the income eligibility limits so that, for instance, a family of four earning $72,000 a year can qualify. Legislators also lifted the cap on the number of kindergarten and first-grade students who can get vouchers.

Opponents have filed a lawsuit saying the program is unconstitutional, in part because it provides funding to schools that discriminate against students or their families on religious grounds, The News & Observer previously reported.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s budget proposal calls for reducing voucher funding to “reflect a graduation elimination of the program.” He would continue to fund current recipients but would not add new families beginning next school year.

Increasing voucher award

The legislation approved by the House would tie the voucher award to the average amount provided by the state per student in public schools.

The bill would set the voucher amount in the 2022-23 school year to 70% of the average per-pupil amount, or currently $4,610. It would increase it the following year to 80% of the per-pupil amount, or currently $5,269.

Among other changes, the bill would:

Give scholarship priority this year to families who left public schools to attend private schools during the coronavirus pandemic.

Allow eligibility for second-grade students who previously haven’t attended a public school.

Allow counties to provide up to $1,000 per child in scholarships for students who are in the voucher programs.

Senate plan for voucher expansion

The Senate GOP plan would go even farther than the House in expanding both eligibility and the voucher amount.

Senate Bill 671 would increase the income eligibility to 175% of the amount required for a family to be eligible for a free- or reduced-price lunch. That works out to a family income up to $56,400 for a two-person household and up to $85,794 for a family of four.

The legislation also would raise the voucher amount to a maximum of $6,500 a year, according to bill sponsors. The bill ties the voucher amount to the average amount spent by the state per student each year.

“Last year public schools in North Carolina were shut down because of the pandemic, leaving many parents to scramble to find alternatives that would meet their child’s needs,” Sen. Mike Lee, a New Hanover County Republican and one of the bill’s primary sponsors, said in a news release.

“It’s clear that after a year of being forced into ‘virtual learning’ working-class families want a bigger say in their child’s education and Opportunity Scholarships can give them back their voice.”

Republicans are expected to try work out a compromise between the two bills to see if it will get enough Democratic support to override a potential veto from Cooper.

Under the Dome

With the start of the new year and a new legislative session, The News & Observer has launched a new Under the Dome podcast. We’re unpacking legislation and issues that matter to keep you updated on what’s happening in North Carolina politics twice a week on Monday and Friday mornings. Check us out here and sign up for our weekly Under the Dome newsletter for more political news.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.