Senate advances bill to to spend billions of public money on private school vouchers

Even wealthy families would receive a state subsidy

By: - April 26, 2023 4:53 pm

Republicans from the NC House and Senate detail their plans to make school vouchers available to all North Carolinians.

North Carolina is moving to a “backpack” school funding model to allow parents to take state education dollars to the schools of their choice, even private ones, says Sen. Michael Lee, a New Hanover County Republican.

Sen. Michael Lee

Lee made the comment Wednesday during a discussion about Republican-backed Senate Bill 406, which would expand the state’s “Opportunity Scholarship Program” so that all families qualify regardless of income.

The decade-old school choice program was originally created to help low-income families whose public schools were failing to send their children to private schools. SB 406 would allow even extremely wealthy parents to receive public money to help pay private school tuition.

“I’m curious as to what the argument is to allow for opportunity scholarships to a family that is making a million dollars?” Sen. Jay Chaudhuri asked.   

Sen. Jay J. Chaudhuri

Lee responded: “I think it’s no secret that I personally, and I think a lot of others feel that we’re moving to a model of backpack funding with students and education that enables them to take their money to wherever they’re going to school — that is moving between charters, private, publics.”

The Senate Education/Higher Education Committee gave SB 406 a favorable report and referred it to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Democrats peppered Lee with questions about the program before the committee’s vote.

“We have a lot of choice already without this bill, which I think does a lot of damage to public education,” said Sen. Natasha Marcus, a Mecklenburg County Democrat. “We have good public schools, we have magnet schools, we have public charter schools and we even, under current law, have a lot of funding … for various private schools of their choice.”

Rep. Tricia Cotham, a former Democrat from Mecklenburg County who joined the Republican Party this month, has introduced a companion bill in the House. “This legislation is about kids first,” Cotham said during a GOP press conference to discuss SB 406. “[It’s] about families being able to make the best decision for their child.”

Cotham, a former teacher and principal, said she was opposed to school choice until it was time to send her son to school.

Rep. Tricia Cotham

“I did my due diligence as a parent and as a mama and went to our public school — it’s a great public school —and then went to visit the private schools in Charlotte and I was blown away,” Cotham said, adding that her son attends a private school.

House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican from Cleveland County, said that supporters of school choice aren’t against public schools. “We can have a strong, vibrant, well-funded, supported traditional public school system and at the same time provide funding for those students and those families who decide they want to do something different,” Moore said.

Rosie and David Mayberry attended the press conference to discuss their decision to use vouchers to send two of their three children to private schools. One child was not eligible for a voucher because she had not previously attended a public school. SB 406 would remove that requirement.

“This scholarship has changed our life,” Rosie Mayberry said. “For our children, they are thriving in their school, where prior, they were behind in almost all of their subjects.”

Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Guilford)

Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Guilford County Democrat, said it’s understandable that parents want schools that provide quality eduction. Robinson said that lawmakers must be willing to fund traditional public schools at a level that makes parents comfortable that their children are also getting quality educations.

“I certainly hope that we are doing that,” Robinson said.

Robinson’s remarks were a veiled reference to the nearly 30-year-old Leandro school funding lawsuit. School districts in five low-wealth counties sued the state, claiming that children were not receiving the same level of educational opportunities as students in wealthier counties. School districts in Cumberland, Hoke, Robeson, and Vance counties joined Halifax County in the lawsuit.

Last year a Special Superior Court judge ordered the state to spend  $1.8 billion to fund two years of the Comprehensive Remedial plan required under Leandro. The school improvement plans calls for $5.6 billion in new education spending over eight years.

But GOP leaders contend only state lawmakers have the authority to make funding decisions. Under SB 406, state lawmakers would appropriate $3 billion — more than half on what the state is supposed to spend under the Leandro decision — on the Opportunity Scholarship Program over the next seven years.

Annual spending on private school vouchers would steadily increase until it reaches $500 million by the 2031-32 school year under the proposed legislation.

Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the NC Association of Educators, said that expanding vouchers will deny low wealth communities the educational resource their children need to thrive.

“Rather than expanding a program that by its definition cannot support every student, let’s invest in our public schools so students have safe schools, inviting classrooms, a well-rounded curriculum, class sizes that are small enough for one-on-one attention, and support services such as health care, nutrition, and after-school programs for students who need them,” Kelly said.

The voucher payments would be awarded as follows if SB 406 is approved:

  • Families with an annual income at or below the amount required to qualify for free and reduced lunch — $55,500 for a family of four — would receive up to 100% of the average state per-pupil allocation from the prior fiscal year, for a maximum award of $7,213 in fiscal year 2023–24.
  • Families in households with an income from 100% to 200% of the free and reduced lunch threshold — a maximum of $111,000 for a family of four — would be eligible for a maximum award of 90% of the average state per-pupil allocation from the prior fiscal year, for a maximum award of $6,492 in fiscal year 2023–24.
  • Families in households with an income from 200% to 450% of the free and reduced lunch threshold — a maximum $249,750 for a family of four — would be eligible for a maximum award of 60% of the average state per-pupil allocation from the prior fiscal year, for a maximum award of $4,328 in fiscal year 2023–24.
  • All other families would be eligible for a maximum award of 45% of the average state per-pupil allocation from the prior fiscal year, for a maximum award of $3,246 in fiscal year 2023–24.

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.