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NC Senate Budget Would Dramatically Increase School Vouchers

Flickr/Seth Sawyers

The number of private school vouchers North Carolina offers could rapidly increase, if senate leaders get their way. They want to grow the program by $120 million over the next twelve years. 

Senate President Pro-Tem Phil Berger talked up the Senate's spending plan on Tuesday. He said it would do a lot of things, like "invest hundreds of millions additional dollars in public education and other core priorities."

That includes money for teacher raises, reducing class size in second grade, and a pilot to give 3rd grade reading teachers bonuses based on student performance.

It would also drastically increase money sent to private schools through the state's voucher program called Opportunity Scholarships.    

The state's current budget sets aside $24.8 million for vouchers next school year. The Senate wants to increase that to $34.8 million, then add another $10 million every year for the next eleven years. By 2027, it would amount to $144.8 million, serving an additional 20,000 students. 

"I don't believe that's in the best interest of North Carolina," says Craig Horn, who co-chairs the House's Education Appropriations Committee. 

For one, he says, it's hard to estimate what the demand for vouchers will be that far in the future.   

"It may be too early in the opportunity scholarship process to have developed a good model for that demand," says Horn.

This is the program's second year of offering low-income families $4,200 to offset tuition at private schools. The program now serves about 3,600, but has money to serve even more. An injunction, protracted court case, and last year's late budget approval likely didn't help encourage applications.    

Horn says his concern over such a rapid expansion comes down to priorities. 

"We decided that our priorities were, first and foremost, to develop a stronger teacher core, both in numbers and in quality," says Horn.   

Senate leaders expect the full Senate to debate the spending plan this week.   

Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.