Wall Street Journal sees North Carolina’s expansion of private school vouchers as ‘victory’ for school choice movement

By: - September 9, 2020 6:00 am

The Wall Street Journal (WJS) and school choice advocates are hailing as a major “victory” Gov. Roy Cooper’s decision to sign off on a $1.1 billion COVID-19 relief package that also expands the state’s controversial school voucher program.

Cooper, a Democrat, signed the Republican-backed Coronavirus Relief Act 3.0 into law on Friday.

Here’s an excerpt from the WSJ editorial published Sept. 7 under the headline “A Carolina Victory for School Choice.“

“The victory is all the more significant because the state’s Democratic Governor, Roy Cooper, came into office vowing to eliminate the program. In late August he proposed taking $85 million from the Opportunity Scholarship program while spending $360 million for a $2,000 bonus for all public school teachers.”

The editorial also heralded private schools for returning to classrooms for in-person instruction. A majority of North Carolina’s public K-12 schools are providing remote learning until the coronavirus is controlled.

“North Carolina’s decision comes as Covid-19 has exposed the union-first, students-last priorities of traditional public schools. Many union schools refuse to return to in-person learning, while charters and private schools are doing so. Parents worried about their children falling behind are learning that the union schools’ take-it-or-leave-it approach leaves them without options.”

It’s worth noting that North Carolina prohibits collective bargaining by public employees. The NC Association of Educators [NCAE] is a professional development and advocacy organization.

Cooper didn’t specifically address the voucher program in a statement announcing that he would sign the bill. But the governor did note that he didn’t support “every provision” in the bill.

“This budget followed my recommendations on school enrollment funding and invested in important areas like high speed internet access and disaster relief, but legislators should have done more to expand Medicaid, support small businesses, pay our educators, assist with rent and utilities relief and further help unemployed North Carolinians,” Cooper said. “Obviously I don’t agree with every provision, but the funding for pandemic support in this budget is critical and must move forward.”

Under the law, families with 150% of the annual income needed to qualify for free-and reduced-price lunches would be eligible for scholarships. Currently, families at 133% qualify for the scholarships.

“There is nothing better or smarter than providing families with a choice in education so that they, too, can access the schools previously reserved for the wealthy and elite,” Sen. Deanna Ballard, a Republican from Watauga County, said earlier this month after Democrats argued that the state should put voucher money to better use. “How condescending it is to tell low- and middle-income parents, many of them at their wits’ end juggling work and virtual schooling, that their child’s chosen education path has been reallocated to ‘better, smarter’ uses. Parents, including Black soon-to-be-former Democrats, overwhelmingly support Opportunity Scholarships.”

Ballard has been quoted in media reports saying a family of four earning $72,000 a year would now be eligible for the scholarships. However, Kathryn Marker, director of grants, training and outreach at NC State Education Assistance Authority, the agency that oversees the voucher program, could not confirm that amount on Tuesday.

“We have not yet updated our income eligibility guidelines, so no, I can’t do [confirm] that just yet,” Marker said in an emailed response to questions about the guidelines.

For the 2020-21 school year, a family of four qualifies for free school lunches if its annual income is at or below 130% of the poverty rate. A family with an annual income as high as $34,060 qualifies for free school lunches.  So, a family with an annual income of as high as $51,090 would presumably qualify for scholarships at 150% of the amount required for a student to qualify for free lunches. Under the old guideline, it would have been $51,090 at 133%

The picture brightens somewhat for a family of four that qualifies for reduced-priced lunches. That family could, as Ballard pointed out, earn up to $72,705 and still qualify for opportunity scholarships. A family of four must have an annual income between 130% and 185% of the poverty rate to qualify for reduced-priced lunches. At the top end, a family of four can qualify for reduced-priced lunches earning as much as $48,470 a year; and 150% of that amount is $72,705. It would have been $64,465 for a family of four under the old guidelines.

The General Assembly created the school voucher program in 2013. It provides $4,200 per year to parents to pay for part of the tuition at a private school. The State Education Assistance Authority handed out 12,284 vouchers to private schools during the 2019-2020 school year.

The program has been the target of criticism by public school advocates who complain it allows private schools to siphon money from underfunded public schools.

The N.C. Association of Educators and a group of parents filed a lawsuit in July charging that the state’s Opportunity Scholarships operates with little state oversight and that some schools benefiting from the program discriminate on the basis of religion and sexual orientation.

The plaintiffs include parents from Durham, Cumberland, Randolph and Wake counties.

“Vouchers for private schools are an affront to a state that has a long and cherished history of public education,” NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly said in July. “Using public money to pay for private schools is part of a broad assault on public schools and on our state constitution.”

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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.