North Carolina Republican lawmakers have approved competing plans to increase how much taxpayer money families can get to cover their private-school tuition costs.
The state Senate voted 29-20 on Tuesday to approve legislation that would give an additional $1,650 a year to students who receive school vouchers, or Opportunity Scholarships. Senate Bill 671 also allows more middle-income families to qualify for a voucher, including a family of four making $85,794 a year.
“Whenever someone stands up and says ‘You need to give the money to the schools, you’ve got to give the money to the schools,’” said Sen. Mike Lee, a New Hanover County Republican and the bill’s primary sponsor. “I think the money should follow the child and the parents should be the ones that determine what’s in the best interests of their children.”
The bill goes to the state House, which has its own competing voucher bill that the Senate hasn’t acted on yet. The House version would leave the current income eligibility limits in place and not increase the voucher amount as much as the Senate.
The vote largely went along party lines with all Republicans voting yes. All but one Democrat present voted against the bill.
“We do not adequately fund public education in this state and haven’t for many years,” said Sen. Natasha Marcus, a Mecklenburg County Democrat. “Unless and until we get that right, we shouldn’t even be talking about, or thinking about, siphoning off public funds to go to these unaccountable private schools.”
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. Students get up to $4,200 per year.
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.
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.
“Public money definitely should not go to private schools that discriminate based on disability, religion, sexuality, gender identity and more, and yet that’s what this bill is doing and that’s wrong,” Marcus said.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s budget proposal calls for reducing voucher funding to “reflect a gradual elimination of the program.” He would continue to fund current recipients but would not add new families beginning next school year.
Republican lawmakers brought some Opportunity Scholarships families to a press conference last week to talk about how the program has helped them. Melanie Osborne said the program allowed her as a single mother to send her five children to North Raleigh Christian Academy and to give her oldest daughter the help she needed to get accepted into Harvard University.
“As a parent, you know what’s best for your children,” Osborne said. “I just urge that you please do open this up for more kids and keep it going for the kids that currently have it.”
Lee pointed to the example of Osborne’s family to say public schools aren’t meeting the needs of all families.
“I think all children deserve those opportunities,” Lee said. “Not just the ones whose parents make enough money, and the Opportunity Scholarship does that.”
Increasing voucher award
The state hasn’t raised the $4,200 voucher amount since the program started. Lee said the mean tuition for students receiving an Opportunity Scholarship is $5,500.
Lee’s bill would tie the voucher award to the average amount provided by the state per student in public schools. The legislation says vouchers would be 90% of the average per-pupil amount, which Lee said would raise the award to about $5,850 a year.
The House version 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.
The Senate bill raises the program’s income eligibility to families making 175% of the amount needed to qualify for the federal free-or-reduced priced lunch program. That’s equivalent to a family income of up to $56,400 for a two-person household.
Eligibility is currently at 150%.
Republicans may try to work out a compromise between the two bills to see if it will get enough Democratic support to override a potential veto from Cooper. Republicans could also do what they did last year and include the Opportunity Scholarship changes as part of a bill with items that Democrats support.
For instance, Democratic lawmakers and Cooper reluctantly supported expanding the Opportunity Scholarship program last year because it was part of a bill that guaranteed public schools wouldn’t lose state funding if their enrollment dropped during the coronavirus pandemic.
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