North Carolina Senate approves $500 million for private school vouchers and student accounts

By GARY D. ROBERTSON – Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Republicans in the North Carolina Senate pushed through a bill Thursday that would allocate about $500 million more for programs that provide taxpayer money to help K-12 students attend private schools and eliminate their waiting lists.

In a party-line vote of 28 to 15, the Republican-majority Senate agreed to spend the money. Almost all of the amount will meet a surge in demand for Opportunity Scholarship grants since the Republican-dominated Legislature voted last fall to remove income limits for families to receive a grant.

The bill could land on the desk of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, a longtime opponent of private school vouchers, as early as next week if the House votes on the language in the Senate. Republicans have narrow veto-proof majorities in both chambers that could override any Cooper veto.

The end of income caps for admission to the Opportunity Scholarship program and the removal of another eligibility requirement led to a sixfold increase in new applications for the coming school year. Nearly 55,000 children who qualified for the program this fall will otherwise be unable to access funds unless more funding is made available.

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Currently, the money is only enough to reward children who have already received scholarships this school year, as well as some new applicants whose family income has fallen below certain limits. For example, a family of four earning more than $115,440 is left out.

Republican legislative leaders have said eliminating the waiting list is a top priority in this year's General Assembly work session, which began last week. An estimated $1.4 billion in additional government revenue makes it possible.

Sen. Michael Lee, a New Hanover County Republican who is pushing the bill, portrayed the measure as fully funding a policy colleagues had already endorsed for parents seeking help finding educational alternatives for their children.

The private school scholarships were introduced a decade ago and focused on children from low-income families. More recently, eligibility has been expanded to include middle-class families. Scholarship amounts are based on family income and range from up to $7,468 for the lowest income families to $3,360 for the highest income families.

During the hour-long debate on the issue Thursday, Senate Democrats argued it was unfair for the wealthiest families to receive taxpayer-funded Opportunity Scholarships so they can send their children to private schools they can already afford while the The state's public schools are struggling for more funding. Cooper's budget proposal for next year, released last week, would freeze scholarship awards at this year's levels, resulting in $174 million more for public school students and teachers.

“I stand here with a message from our teachers and our parents,” said Sen. Val Applewhite, a Democrat from Cumberland County. “You dialed 911 for public education for this General Assembly. And they feel like the call is going to go to voicemail or we’re just not going to answer it.”

Republicans counter that they have spent more money on K-12 public education and increased teacher salaries.

Other critics said Thursday that private schools that receive the scholarships lack the same academic responsibility as public schools and could screen out some students based on their religion, for example. Republicans blocked votes on Democratic amendments that would have partially barred higher-income families from participation and would have required private schools to meet stricter public school standards.

GOP senators argued that program opponents had wrongly characterized families in which, for example, both parents work and earn less than $60,000 each, as wealthy and ineligible to receive scholarships.

“This bill is about giving the middle class meaningful access to school choice,” said Sen. Amy Galey, a Republican from Alamance County, adding that opponents “fear that the middle class will lack access to an alternative to government-funded ones Education receives because this is what they do.” They don’t control the content or the results.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income in North Carolina was $66,186 in 2022.

The bill would spend an additional $248 million next year to eliminate the Opportunity Scholarship Program waiting list and another $215.5 million to increase planned spending for the 2025-2026 school year. Similar annual adjustments would be permanent until the early 2030s.

The measure would also spend $24.7 million more annually to eliminate the waiting list of about 2,000 students for the Education Student Account, which provides public funding to students with disabilities to attend private schools or receive services.

Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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