Fact Check: Will Forest Give Wealthy Families Access To School Vouchers?
Gov. Roy Cooper and his Republican opponent, Dan Forest, have different ideas about how education money should be apportioned, especially when it comes to vouchers. That came up in their one and only debate. Cooper made this accusation to Forest:
"Your own plan says that everybody gets it. That means that rich parents would be able to use these vouchers in order to send their children to private school."
Joining us to assess this claim is WRAL's Paul Specht.
Lisa Worf: Good morning, Paul.
Paul Specht: Good morning.
Worf: First, vouchers have been around for several years now in North Carolina. How do they work and who can get them?
Specht: They have been around, but not without controversy. They've been around since 2013. And people challenged the idea because Opportunity Scholarships basically take taxpayer dollars and they set them aside for low- to middle-income families that want to send their child to a nonpublic school. Typically, that means private. You may ask, why would someone want to do this? Maybe their child has special needs or just needs more attention — a smaller classroom than the traditional public school might offer. So that's why this program exists.
It was challenged in court and made it all the way to the North Carolina Supreme Court in 2015, which said it was constitutional in a narrow decision. So we've had it ever since. It offers up to $4,200 a year for families that meet those income eligibility requirements.
Worf: OK. So right now, the vouchers are aimed at primarily low-income families, middle-income families, too. Where does Cooper's claim come from, that Forest wants to allow rich families to use them?
Specht: His claim comes from Forest's position on expanding the program. The program itself has not always used all the money it's given. You know, legislators set aside this money for Opportunity Scholarships, but then some years they haven't been able to give it all away. And so the idea behind Forest's plan is that if you open it up to everyone, then more people would use it.
And that is what Dan Forest wants to do. In fact, he doesn't offer a cap at all for income. His campaign website says he would expand the eligibility criteria to allow every family in North Carolina the chance to choose what works for them. And so obviously, Cooper is taking that all the way to its end and saying, "Hey, rich people could use this, too."
Worf: Forest wants to get rid of that income eligibility. But what are the details of that plan? I mean, how would you determine who gets them if there was a lot of demand?
Specht: We reached out to Forest's campaign and he decided that he was not going to respond to us. Forest is a vocal critic of WRAL, which made this a little difficult. But he does have the bare bones of his plan on his website. He says that in order to ensure poor families would still get priority, he would have what he calls a "weighted lottery" system. What that means is that people with lower incomes would have a slightly better chance of getting these scholarships than people who are rich.
We don't know how it would be weighted, how much more of a chance those poor families would have because he didn't provide those details to us.
Worf: And what about the amount of money going to vouchers?
Specht: This program is popular among Republicans. They think it's a good way to help poorer families find a school that is best for their child. And so what they've done recently is raise the budget for this program. In fact, over the next few years, it will be getting $10 million more per year, I believe, all the way up until 2026.
On the other side, Democrats say that they don't like the idea of public taxpayer dollars going toward private schools that aren't as well-regulated. And Gov. Cooper said he would phase out the program. People who already have scholarships could still continue to use them, but he would not offer new ones.
Worf: So how do you rate Cooper's claim that Forest wants to use tax dollars to help rich people send their kids to private schools with vouchers?
Specht: Well, that statement obviously has an element of truth to it because Forest would open it up to anyone. However, he does propose that lottery system that he says would prioritize low-income families. That's a bit of context that was missing from Cooper's claim during the debate that we thought was pretty important. So we rated his claim "half true."
Worf: That's WRAL's Paul Specht. Thanks, Paul.
Specht: Thank you.
Worf: And these fact checks are a collaboration with WRAL and PolitiFact. You can hear them Wednesdays on WFAE's "Morning Edition."
Tell us about your voting experience. Did it go smoothly? Were there any problems? How were the lines? Did you feel safe? If so, why or why not?