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NC House speaker calls for $300 million to give private school vouchers to all income levels

State House Speaker Tim Moore, addressing reporters on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023, at the State Fairgrounds, where he and other candidates filed to run for various offices in 2024. Moore filed to run for the 14th Congressional District seat, which is one of four districts a federal lawsuit filed by Black and Latino voters claims to be racially gerrymandered.
Rusty Jacobs
In this file photo, State House Speaker Tim Moore, addressed reporters on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023 at the State Fairgrounds. Moore this week called on the state legislature to add $300 million to North Carolina's private school voucher program to address higher-than-expected demand for help paying tuition.

House Speaker Tim Moore says the legislature should add $300 million to the state's private school voucher program to address higher-than-expected demand for help paying tuition.

More than 72,000 people applied to the "Opportunity Scholarship" program after state lawmakers expanded who's eligible for the vouchers. The program is now open to all families regardless of their income, but the high demand meant that only about 13,500 students at lower income levels will be able to receive vouchers this year.

Moore said the legislature can afford to make sure no one is left out.

"It's just shown there's much more demand for it," he told reporters Wednesday. "There's a lot of parents who want their kids to be attending either religious or private school. And so I think we ought to be able to step up, but we have the money. The savings reserve has money set aside."

The initial round of vouchers issued are going to families in the "Tier 1" income bracket — an annual income of up to $37,814 for a two-person household (higher for larger families). Families in the "Tier 2" bracket — income of up to $75,628 for a two-person household — might receive vouchers but only if there's money available after the Tier 1 students accept or reject their awards. Unless more funding is added, higher-income families won't be accepted this year.

Funding for the voucher program is already set to increase each year through 2032, when it's set to receive more than $500 million. The allocation is set at $415 million starting next year.

Opponents of the voucher program worry that it will result in less funding for public schools, and Gov. Roy Cooper took to social media to criticize the proposed additional funding Wednesday.

Moore said he thinks the budget will still have money for teacher raises. However, he wasn't sure how lawmakers will approach a request to fund childcare facilities that are grappling with a loss of federal money this year.

"We've made dramatic expansion of child care a priority," he said. "We're going to look and see what the numbers are."

Moore said the state revenue numbers that will shape this year's budget talks haven't been released yet. The legislature's "short session" begins later this month.

Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.