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State lawmakers are currently pushing for a massive expansion of a program that provides public money to pay private school tuition. Critics say the move is devastating to public education. Furthermore, a report on discrepancies in program data led to a recent acknowledgment that at least one school collected state money for students who weren’t enrolled.

NC Senate committee votes to double funding for private school vouchers

Sen. Michael Lee introduces the state budget bill on Thurs., Sept. 21, 2023.
Matt Ramey
/
For WUNC
Sen. Michael Lee introduces the state budget bill on Thurs., Sept. 21, 2023.

State Senate leaders want to spend $248 million in the coming school year to ensure that private school vouchers are available to every family that applied, regardless of their income level.

The legislature eliminated income requirements for the “Opportunity Scholarship” program last year, allowing higher-income families to apply for state funding to offset the costs of private school tuition. That resulted in more than 72,000 people applying for vouchers for the upcoming school year, but the high demand meant that only about 16,000 students at lower income levels have been approved so far.

“Now we've got over 55,000 families that are really on pins and needles wanting to know if their child's going to be able to go to the school of their choice, come the fall,” said Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover and the bill’s sponsor.

The current budget bill includes $191.5 million for the voucher program for the 2024-2025 school year, so the Senate bill that passed the Appropriations Committee Wednesday would more than double the amount. The budget already calls for funding to increase to $415.5 million for the 2025-2026 school year, and the Senate’s proposal would also add another $215.5 million to that amount for 2025-2026 and subsequent years.

This proposed expansion would cover 16,000 students whose household income is up to $115,400 for a family of four, and about 40,000 students at higher household income levels.

Democrats argued the money could be better spent elsewhere.

“When we have so many other unmet needs, particularly related to education, can you justify this welfare for the wealthiest families in some way that makes some sense to the taxpayers of North Carolina?” asked Sen. Natasha Marcus, D-Mecklenburg.

Republicans pushed back on that view. “I'm a little perplexed by the fact that we are now — or at least certain people — are now calling paying for a child's education 'welfare,'” said Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell. “Providing the education for a child is the state's responsibility, and we are using private centers to do that.”

The bill could get a vote from the full Senate as soon as next week. House Speaker Tim Moore has also voiced support for the voucher funding so a House vote is likely to follow. The GOP likely has enough votes to override an expected veto from Gov. Roy Cooper.

Voucher critics say funding could be better spent on public schools

Cooper has been among the voucher program’s strongest critics, and his budget proposal calls for $322.7 million in the coming year to provide an average teacher raise of 8.5% and increase starting teacher pay to $47,500, which the governor said would be the highest in the Southeast.

Cooper also requested $250 million to fund a one-time bonus of $500-$1,000 to all public school employees. Legislative leaders have said they’ll consider teacher raises and/or bonuses as they develop next year’s budget.

North Carolina dropped to 38th in the nation in average teacher pay, down from 36th place, in the National Education Association's annual report on teacher pay released last week.

In a statement, the advocacy group Public Schools First NC highlighted items in Cooper’s budget that would expand the NC Teaching Fellows recruitment program; fund support programs for disadvantaged students; and hire more school counselors, psychologists and nurses. Combined, those line items in Cooper’s budget roughly equal the amount Republicans are proposing to spend to clear the Opportunity Scholarship waiting list.

The Public School Forum of North Carolina also pointed to investments the state could make to eliminate the waiting list for low-income families applying for NC Pre-K, or to fund after-school programs that have been paid for with federal pandemic relief dollars now set to expire.

“These are services that families, working families, are relying on,” said Lauren Fox, the Senior Director of Policy and Research at the Public School Forum of North Carolina. “That would be a much better use of our state tax dollars right now than providing subsidies to wealthy families.”

Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.
Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email: lschlemmer@wunc.org