NC House panel advances controversial bill to dramatically expand school vouchers
Rep. Tricia Cotham explains the school voucher expansion legislation. (Photo: ncleg.gov video feed)
The state’s House Committee on K-12 Education on Tuesday powered through a controversial expansion of North Carolina’s school voucher program that could forever change the state’s public education landscape.
House Bill 823 was topic No. 1 ahead of Thursday’s crossover deadline. The Republican-backed legislation would open the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program to all families regardless of income. If the bill becomes law, state taxpayers would help families worth millions of dollars pay private school tuition.
The legislation received a favorable report and was referred the House Rules, Calendar and Operations Committee.
Rep. Tricia Cotham, a former Democrat from Mecklenburg County who switched to the Republican Party last month, pushed back against criticism that the changes to the program will benefit wealthy families.
“I’ve heard all of the rhetoric and the concepts about this is going to have rich kids using taxpayers’ dollars to go to private schools,” Cotham said. “That is false.”
What is true, despite Cotham’s claim, is that the state’s wealthiest families — those worth millions of dollars — could receive up to 45% of the average state per pupil allocation for the prior school year. Students from low-income families would be eligible for 100% of the average per pupil allocation. The voucher program was started in 2013 as a way to allow poor families to opt out of low-performing public schools.
“This type of funding works on a tiered system so that our most vulnerable, and our most highest threshold of poverty level receive the most amount of money,” Cotham said.
Rep. Julie von Haefen, a Wake County Democrat, challenged Cotham’s statement that the state’s voucher program is a success.
“North Carolina has one of the most unaccountable systems in the entire country,” von Haefen said, adding that there is no public accountability for academic outcomes at private schools that receive public money under the voucher program.
Rep. Rosa Gill, also a Wake County Democrat, said the voucher bill threatens public education.
“It does not in my opinion advance the stated goals of fostering greater choice as this funding would go to families who already send their children to private school,” Gill said. “Choice is great but most parents who send their kids to private school have already made the choice.”
Gill submitted an amendment to strike a provision allowing students already attending private school to receive vouchers.
Cotham urged the committee to vote against Gill’s amendment. “I completely reject the statement that was just made, and this comment seeks to gut and destroy the bill so I ask you to vote it down,” Cotham said.
Gill’s amendment failed.
Annual spending on private school vouchers would steadily increase until it reaches $500 million by the 2031-32 school year, under the proposed legislation.
Renee Sekel, a Wake County parent, said HB 823 might get a warmer reception from public school supporters if GOP lawmakers agreed to fund the Leandro comprehensive remedial plan, which was approved by the state judiciary as a part of a nearly three-decades-old school funding lawsuit.
In Leandro, school districts in five low-wealth counties — Cumberland, Hoke, Robeson, Vance and Halifax — sued the state, claiming that children were not receiving the same level of educational opportunities as students in wealthier counties.
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 plan 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 HB 823 and a companion bill in the Senate, 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.
“You all are standing in open defiance of the North Carolina Supreme Court,” Sekel said. “You are refusing to fund our schools to a bare minimum constitutional level and then you turn around and lavish unending funding on a private school voucher system that’s not even popular.”
With Cotham’s defection to the Republican Party, the GOP now has supermajorities in both the House and the Senate. That means there is a strong probability that HB 823 and its companion in the Senate will become law.
House Speaker Tim Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, made an appearance at the committee meeting to confirm his support for HB 823 and for school choice.
“At the end of the day, what I support is, when it comes to education, that we provide as many opportunities and as many options as we can for every child and for every parent to help their child get the best education for them,” Moore said.
Moore noted the steps North Carolina has taken over the past 10 years in providing parents and students alternatives to traditional public schools.
“We’ve invested records amounts in our traditional K-12 schools, record amounts in our charter schools,” Moore said. “You don’t have to do one and not the other.”
In fact, when adjusted for inflation, state per pupil spending declined over the past decade under GOP rule at the General Assembly.
Wyatt McGee urged the committee to support the voucher program expansion. McGee said his 11-year-old daughter attends a private school, but middle-income families like his struggle to pay double.
“We’re paying our taxes like everyone else but we’re not getting any benefit,” McGhee said. “We’re being required to pay double. We’re having to pay our taxes plus tuition and books and everything else for our daughter to go to the school that will help her out.”
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