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NC Republicans tout ‘backpack funding’ for education that offers vouchers to all

Republican legislators, including state Rep. Tricia Cotham of Mecklenburg County (at dais), held a news conference Wednesday to support an expanded voucher bill.
N.C. General Assembly live stream
Republican legislators, including state Rep. Tricia Cotham of Mecklenburg County (at dais), held a news conference Wednesday, April 26, 2023, to support an expanded voucher bill.

The state House Education Committee Wednesday approved a bill that would allow all North Carolina families to get public money for private school tuition. It’s a model of what a key sponsor calls “backpack funding,” and it has big implications.

Republican leaders in the House and Senate have lined up behind an expansion of the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program. It was approved 10 years ago as a way of helping low- and moderate-income families afford alternatives to public schools. The new plan removes all income limits.

Sen. Michael Lee, a Republican from New Hanover County, describes it as a new way of thinking about education: “We’re moving to a model of backpack funding with students and education that enables them to take their money to wherever they’re going to school.”

Lee says it’s part of a shift to putting students and families ahead of systems — even one as central as the public school system. The plan provides for steady increases in total scholarship funding, from almost $177 million for the coming year to more than $500 million a year by 2031.

He described it as part of a broad shift in philosophy: “If we don’t start changing the focus in education and everything else with our children, that it needs to be centered around the children and the family, I think we’re really missing the boat and we’re failing our children. And that’s not what this General Assembly is going to do.”

Scholarships for millionaires?

The new plan offers bigger subsidies for families with modest incomes. But, as Lee put it in a news conference, “everyone that hears me today is eligible for the Opportunity Scholarship, as long as you live in North Carolina.”

That brought a question from Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Wake County Democrat.

“I am curious as to what the argument is to allow for Opportunity Scholarships to a family that’s making a million dollars. What is the reasoning for that?” he asked.

Lee said backpack funding means all students can get a share of public education funding to spend as their families choose. Instead of funding school systems, the state would divide spending into individual chunks that students could carry around — thus the “backpack” metaphor.

Opposition is rapid

As Republicans moved to celebrate the voucher plan Wednesday (there’s a matching bill in the House), opponents spoke up.

Speaking to reporters at an energy conference in Raleigh, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper voiced opposition to the proposal, saying it would strip money from public schools.

“You’re going to end up with poor, middle-class children who potentially have a small amount for a voucher to go to a school that’s not as good as a public school,” Cooper said. “This is wrong. It’s the wrong use of taxpayer money and we’ve got to keep fighting it.”

It’s difficult to predict exactly how much any family could get. The formula is tied to the state’s average per-pupil funding and the guidelines for federal lunch subsidies for low-income students. Lee said about 27,000 students now get the income-based scholarships, averaging about $5,600 a year.

The new formula, which would take effect in 2024, would provide a full share of state per-pupil funding to people eligible for lunch subsidies, or a family of four making $55,500. That drops to 45% of that share for top earners. The state currently spends about $7,400 per student.

Sen. Natasha Marcus, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, criticized the bill in the Senate Education Committee meeting.

“We have a lot of choice already without this bill, which I think does a lot of damage to public education,” Marcus said. “We have good public schools. We have magnet schools. We have public charter schools.”

She challenged Lee on providing hundreds of millions of public dollars to private schools that don’t have to provide evidence of academic results and that can be selective about who’s admitted.

“Are we going to continue to allow them to discriminate against LGBTQ families, or based on religion? I feel like if we are going to open it up and balloon the payments the way this bill would do, are we now finally ready to agree to some accountability? And if so, what?” Marcus said.

Lee said he’s willing to talk about studying academic outcomes, but “the ultimate metric of accountability is the family and the student. It’s the ultimate.”

The Democratic-leaning North Carolina Association of Educators issued a statement Wednesday opposing the plan, citing the shift of money away from public schools and the lack of accountability.

The bill is sponsored by Republican leaders who have a veto–proof majority in the House and Senate, so it’s nearly certain to pass.

Parents tell their stories

Rep. Tricia Cotham of Mecklenburg County created that veto-proof majority when she recently switched parties to become a Republican. She’s a former public school educator who was elected as a Democrat in November.

State Rep. Tricia Cotham of Mecklenburg County talks about her experience with private school at a Wednesday news conference promoting a voucher bill.
N.C. General Assembly live stream
State Rep. Tricia Cotham of Mecklenburg County talks about her experience with private school at a Wednesday news conference promoting a voucher bill.

In a news conference before the committee meeting, Cotham said her stance on school choice changed when she looked at options for her son. She said she visited her public school, which she described as great, “and then went to visit the private schools in Charlotte. And I was blown away.”

She said she chose private school for her son, and she’d be a hypocrite not to help others have that option: “If we have the ability to send our children to private school or to a charter, then we cannot say to others, ‘Well, you can’t.’ ”

Charlotte’s most prestigious private schools charge between $25,000 and $30,000 a year, depending on grade level. Vouchers wouldn’t come close to covering that. But parents like Delicia Hare talked about how the scholarships have changed their lives.

Hare said her 16-year-old son switched from public to private school in second grade, something she could only afford with public help.

“And now he is striving and thriving and he knows exactly what he wants to do when he grows up,” she said at the news conference. “And isn’t that what we want for our kids when they’re younger, is, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ ”

The committee meeting also included public speakers who support the bill, including members of the Libre Initiative, which pushes limited government in the Latino community. Ivett Manosalva said the vouchers let her send her daughter to Catholic schools.

“And we feel at home because this is part of our belief. If this program did not exist my family could not afford the school with this kind of level of education,” she said.

During the pre-hearing news conference, House Speaker Tim Moore said the expanded voucher program will not undermine public schools. “All of our colleagues want a strong, a well-funded public school system in North Carolina,” he said.

The state currently spends more than $11 billion a year on K-12 education. The General Assembly is working on a budget for the next two years.

Reporter David Boraks contributed to this report.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.