RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Families at any income level — not just the poor and the middle class — could receive North Carolina taxpayer funds for their children to attend K-12 private schools under legislation getting formal support Wednesday with votes in both chambers.
The effort to greatly expand the state's nearly decade-old Opportunity Scholarship Program is a key initiative of conservative school choice activists. They argue government should provide students with funds to ensure they can succeed in private or religious schools, perhaps to avoid chronically low-performing public schools.
“We all should know by now that education is not one-size-fits-all," Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Mecklenburg County Republican and a chief sponsor, said during debate on a standalone House measure that passed 65-45. “This bill allows the family to act in the child’s best interest.”
Similar provisions, along with the funding to carry it out, are contained in the Senate budget that received initial approval on Wednesday in that chamber.
The two chambers next must decide how to move the idea forward to the desk of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who opposes what he calls school vouchers. But Republicans hold veto-proof majorities in both chambers.
For most of its history, program grants have been available to those who would qualify for free or reduced-price lunch at school or have been a little above that cut-off. More recently, the income cap has been raised so that, for example, a family of four making up to $111,000 could qualify next school year for scholarships of up to almost $6,500 per eligible child.
Under the proposal, which would begin with the 2024-25 school year, income eligibility limits would be eliminated. They would be replaced by a sliding scale by which the lowest-income applicants would receive scholarships equal to the per-pupil amount allocated to the public schools last year. The highest wage earners could receive awards equal to 45% of the per-pupil allotment.
Democrats spoke against the measure, saying it would erode financial support for traditional public schools even more by siphoning state funds to private schools, many of which lack the same standards and accountability as public schools.
Rep. Julie von Haefen, a Wake County Democrat opposed to the program, said eliminating the income standards would transfer money to wealthy families that already have the funds to pay for private schools.
“Whose children are really getting meaningful choice from this bill?” von Haefen asked. She and other opponents said state legislators have yet to comply financially with landmark state Supreme Court rulings that declared the state has failed to give children an “opportunity to receive a sound basic education.”
This school year, over 25,500 students shared $133 million in Opportunity Scholarship awards distributed to over 540 schools, according to state data. Language in the Senate budget would expand program funding to over $500 million annually by 2031.
Wednesday's floor debate was sharp at times, particularly as some Democrats blamed the grants for contributing to the resegregation of K-12 classrooms. Black and Latino families have been among vocal supporters of the program, however.
The debate led one Republican House member to apologize to a Black colleague whom he had interrupted to ask about his education.
Democratic Rep. Abe Jones of Wake County is a former judge who attended Harvard University for both undergraduate work and law school.
GOP Rep. Jeff McNeely of Iredell County, who is white, asked Jones whether he would “have been able to maybe achieve this if you were not an athlete or a minority or any of these things, but you were a student trapped in a school.”
That led House Minority Leader Robert Reives to step in and raise concerns. McNeely tried to explain, then House Speaker Tim Moore cut off his questioning. Jones said on the floor that he “earned my place” at Harvard, leading fellow Democrats to give him a standing ovation.
McNeely got up later and said "what I tried to ask or say did not come out right.” He called Jones a “great legislator and great man.” Jones said in a news release that he appreciated the apology.