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Fact Check: Looking At Claims NC Democrats Made Around Private School Voucher Program

News & Observer

Republican lawmakers want to expand eligibility for North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program. Under the voucher program, the state pays private schools up to $4,200 a year on behalf of each low-income student.

Credit Paul Specht

The Senate approved a bill this month that would raise the income-level to qualify for the program. It would also get rid of the limit on the number of kindergarten and first grade students who can be served. That cap is now set at 40 percent of the scholarship money.

Democrats have spoken out against the vouchers since they started in 2014, saying it siphons money from public schools to those that have no accountability. During debate on the Senate floor two weeks ago, two Mecklenburg County Democrats said the Opportunity Scholarship have other problems. The Raleigh News and Observer’s Paul Specht joined “Morning Edition” host Lisa Worf to assess those claims.

Lisa Worf: What did state Sen. Jeff Jackson and Sen. Natasha Marcus specifically say about the demand for the program when arguing against it?

Paul Specht: Sen. Jackson said that the demand has been low. I'll say right off the bat we thought this was good to look into, but found that it was too difficult to assign a rating. "Low" is sort of a subjective claim and he doesn't measure it against much. So, it's hard to have a backstop to compare it to, so to speak.

But we did find that although the program's interest started out at about 1,000 recipients in year one, it's grown steadily to about 10,000 this current school year that's about to end. While that might not sound like many students, we thought it misleading to say that interest has been low since it's been on the rise.

And as for Natasha Marcus, her claim was easier to fact check. She said that there is "No waitlist for these vouchers." She said, "To the extent there is any waitlist it's that these parents make too much money to qualify."

But about this time last year there were 520 students who applied and were eligible, but did not get the vouchers because they were in kindergarten and first grade and that cap limited state spending. So they were left out of the voucher program because of the cap the state put on, not because of the parents’ income.

Worf: So in assessing this claim, it makes sense to look at how much money goes unused each year from these programs.

Specht: It's been in the millions. We reached out to the person who directs the funding and sort of coordinates the program and she said that it's not uncommon for money to be left on the table or for it to look like it's been unspent, because not 100 percent of the money goes to scholarships. There's also money needed just for operational expenses.

But through the years even with those operational expenses considered, there's been $5 million left on the table in 2014, $4 million left on the table in 2015, $2 million left on the table in 2016 and then $5 million again left over in 2017. So there's money being unspent, which is a major critique of the program from the Democrats.

Worf: And that's with increasing budgets for the program too.

Specht: That's right. They initially increased it in 2015 by about $8 million but then in 2017, they increased it an additional $10 million a year for the next decade — which means the budget will jump from $44 million this year to $144 million for the 2027/2028 school year.

Worf: So how do you rate Marcus her statement?

Specht: She's right that right now there's no waitlist and that the people left out of the program last year will not be first in line to receive a scholarship this coming year. But she's wrong to suggest that everyone who applied for a scholarship and was eligible received one, or that people who rejected were rejected because they've made too much money. That's not true. So, we gave her a "half true."

Worf: If you’re wondering where all that unspent money in the Opportunity Scholarship program goes, it rolls over for use in the program the following year. If it still isn’t spent the second year, it then reverts to the state’s general fund.  

Paul Specht will be joining WFAE’s Morning Edition every Wednesday to Fact Check North Carolina news. If you have any claims you want the PolitiFact team to check out, you can email them at factcheck@newsobserver.com.