The General Assembly passed a bill Tuesday primarily to address issues with a prior law that reduces class sizes in kindergarten through third grade. While the measure to phase in and better fund those reductions had bipartisan support, Democrats have criticized the bill for tacking on a number of other provisions.
Among the measures tucked into the bill is a major change to the state's newest school choice program. The provision greatly expands eligibility for the state's new Education Savings Account. The accounts are state-funded debit cards for students with disabilities. Recipients can spend up to $9,000 on expenses including therapists, adaptive technology or tuition at participating private schools.
When the program opened this year, it was available to students enrolled in public schools who wanted to move to private schools. If the bill becomes law, students already at private schools can also compete in a lottery to receive funds.
This would be the first time one of the state's three voucher programs would be open broadly to students already enrolled in private schools.
Tim Montgomery heads The Piedmont School, a private school in High Point that exclusively serves students with learning disabilities like ADHD and dyslexia. The school offers a high level of support for its students, including small class sizes and adapted curriculum.
Montgomery says his students' parents will be thrilled if they can also apply for the program. Tuition at the specialized school runs about $18,000 a year, and many parents face a variety of other expenses related to their child’s disability.
"The great majority I think of our families will be able to use this to assist with their tuition," Montgomery said. "This will not completely pay their tuition to be able to come to our school, but it's certainly going to make it doable for a lot of our families."
School choice advocates applauded the introduction of the new ESA's this year, but parents at the Piedmont School -- some of whom had struggled to pay for their child's tuition and expenses -- felt left out of the opportunity. Now, they too can apply to enter a lottery for the funds. Families that already receive the state's two vouchers for low-income families or students with disabilities can combine the awards for a total of up to $21,200.
Voucher Expansion Here to Stay?
Montgomery says he is optimistic that the expansion of the Education Savings Account eligibility is a sign of continued state support for school choice measures.
"You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube. I mean this is out there now," Montgomery said. “Now that these grant programs are becoming available, I just think they're becoming more readily available, and they're going be better funded moving forward.”
That's exactly what critics of North Carolina's school choice programs fear. They say it is important to limit how much money is being redirected from public schools to private schools.
Originally, only students who met certain exceptions could apply for the Education Savings Account without first being enrolled in a public school. The bill passed this week crossed off those restrictions.
"It's a bad trend when it comes to these privatization efforts," says Keith Poston, president of the Public School Forum of North Carolina advocacy group. The group has also criticized the Legislature’s $10 million per year
expansion of the state’s low-income voucher program, saying it funnels money from public schools.
When it comes to the disability grants, Poston says he understands that parents will seek what’s best for their children, but that removing a disabled child from a public school also comes with a caveat.
“They need to understand some of the protections and some of the support they give up when they leave the public school, including very key federal protections under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act,” Poston said. “They’ll essentially be waiving those rights.”
Any private school that registers with the state can accept ESA funds for tuition, including schools that do not cater to students who have disabilities.
Gov. Roy Cooper has said he will let the bill become law without his signature. A representative of the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority, which administers the ESA program, says the agency expects the changes to take effect during this year's funding cycle. Applications for the ESA are currently open.