The Pulse

Rep. Tricia Cotham touts school voucher expansion on national stage

By: - May 8, 2023 3:15 pm

Rep. Tricia Cotham explains the school voucher expansion legislation. (Photo: video feed)

In a recent op-ed for the conservative National Review that is both celebratory and defiant, Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Republican from Mecklenburg County, made a case for opening up the state’s school voucher program to the state’s wealthiest families.

The North Carolina General Assembly is currently weighing bills that would allow any parent, regardless of income, to become eligible for the state’s so-called “Opportunity Scholarship” program.

The program was created in 2013 to provide low-income families with “scholarships” to pay for private schools. Senate Bill 406 would allow families earning millions to receive the relatively modest scholarships. The poorest families could receive up to $7,200.

Wealthy families would be eligible for about 45% of the state’s annual per pupil allocation.

Families that have decided that their local public school isn’t the best fit for their children will have access to funds to help with nonpublic-school tuition, and they also will be able to use the money for transportation, books, and other school supplies,” Cotham wrote in the conservative editorial magazine. 

Cotham is a former Democrat from Mecklenburg County who switched to the Republican Party last month.

She said that expanding the voucher program will help the public schools — not hurt them as critics contend.

When Senate Bill 406 is enacted into law, the opposite will be true. Studies of states that have adopted school-choice policies overwhelming find positive effects on public schools,” Cotham said.

The study that Cotham cites was conducted by EdChoice, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that says it works to empower families to choose the best schools for their children.

Echoing comments she’s made during recent education committee meetings at the General Assembly, Cotham said that private schools who receive taxpayer money will be held accountable by parents who send their children to them.

“Parental empowerment is the definition of transparency and accountability,” she wrote. “Indeed, as money follows students, state lawmakers and scholars will see which educational approaches succeed in real time. And parents will respond accordingly.”

In an interview with Newsline’s Rob Schofield, Rep. Julie von Haefen noted that voucher supporters are pushing a narrative that the program would help low-income families by giving them the same educational opportunities as children from wealthy families.

“What I find to be very ironic is that whole argument and that whole discussion has been thrown out the window because if we’re just targeting the program to low-income families we should have a cap on the income of families who can access it,” von Haefen said.

It’s dubious that large numbers of low-income families choose private schools because tuition isn’t the only barrier, von Haefen said. Those families also struggle to provide transportation to private schools and to pay for lunches, she said. Low-income families with children attending charter schools face the same challenges when schools don’t provide lunches or transportation.

“I’ve known for years that this program is not just for low-income students,” von Haefen said. “That was a story that was spun, honestly, and now they’ve abandoned it at this point.”

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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.