Families begin applying for expanded NC school voucher program

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The application period for North Carolina’s expanded school voucher program opened Thursday after the General Assembly voted last year to make every family eligible for funding to help pay for private school.

The Opportunity Scholarship program previously had an income cap but now any family can apply. The amount a family could receive varies based on income, with those at the lower end of the scale eligible for the highest scholarship amounts.

The North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority administers the program and confirmed the website crashed shortly after midnight Thursday as people began to apply.

“The application is up and working now. Our vendor had an issue overnight that was resolved well before the start of business hours. It looks like fewer than 200 applicants were impacted, and we’re reaching out to them now to make sure they can apply,” writes Mary Shuping, NCSEAA director of government and external affairs, in an email.

Shuping noted people could experience delays in the first few days of the application period. But, she said there is no advantage to applying early and families can continue to apply until March 1.

About 32,000 students receive the scholarships this year and have the ability to renew first. After that, the state conducts a lottery to dole out the remaining funds, beginning with families whose incomes are in the lowest tier.

Under the new rules, scholarships will range from $3,360 per child for families with the highest incomes to $7,468 per child for lower-income families.

Families whose children already attend private school are now eligible to apply if their school accepts the Opportunity Scholarship.

Shaqweeta Spencer said receiving the scholarship has made a difference for her children. She’s a single mom of six kids. Her four school-age children now go to Victory Christian Center in Charlotte, which she said she would have been unable to afford on her own.

“I’m grateful. I’m grateful for it,” said Spencer. “In public school, my children felt brushed off. And so, when they got to the Christian school along with the scholarship, they were like wow Mom it’s a difference.”

When Republicans announced plans to expand the program last year, they described the concept as “backpack funding” where families take their tax dollars to the school of their choice.

Democrats have been critical of the program since its inception, questioning the lack of accountability standards and now the move to make even the wealthiest families eligible.

Republicans are significantly increasing the amount of money available for the scholarships, which will climb each year and exceed $500 million annually starting in the 2031-2032 school year.

Gov. Roy Cooper (D) recently declared 2024 the “Year of Public Schools” as he called for the state to halt additional spending on the voucher program.

“We need to put a moratorium on school vouchers until we fully fund public education,” Cooper said in a recent interview. “I still believe that people prefer investment in public education than investment in wealthy people who send their kids to private school.”

Mitch Kokai, senior political analyst at the conservative John Locke Foundation, which backs the Opportunity Scholarship program, pointed to a recent poll the organization conducted that found 64 percent of voters support the program.

“The fact that we have more parents being eligible to send their kids to school, more money now available, it is going to be hard in future years if Democrats take control again for them to say no we’re gonna scrap this program,” he said. “The accountability comes from the parents. The parents are choosing these schools.”

For more information from NCSEAA, click here.

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