© 2024 Blue Ridge Public Radio
Blue Ridge Mountains banner background
Your source for information and inspiration in Western North Carolina.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

NC voucher expansion debate highlights starkly different approaches to education spending

Students at Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic School in Charlotte in spring 2021. It's one of the private schools eligible for North Carolina's Opportunity Scholarships.
Ann Doss Helms
Students at Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic School in Charlotte, one of the private schools that takes North Carolina's Opportunity Scholarships.

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted Wednesday to advance a bill that would pump hundreds of millions of additional dollars into North Carolina’s private-school vouchers. The meeting served as an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to showcase very different views of education spending priorities.

Republican Sen. Michael Lee of Wilmington opened by noting that for the past decade, waiting lists have not been a problem for North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship program. He said it’s been tough to let families know they can get public assistance paying for private schools … and he credited one person with turning that around.

“I have to thank the governor,” Lee said. “The governor went around the state telling everybody about Opportunity Scholarships. I mean everybody.”

He’s referring to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who has been touring the state calling for a moratorium on vouchers and stronger support for public schools.

Of course, it also didn’t hurt that last summer the General Assembly lifted the income cap for vouchers and offered larger annual payments. For the first time, demand outstripped supply: Almost 16,000 students will be added to the rolls next year, but almost 55,000 are on the waiting list.

Republican leaders, including Lee, want to add more than $270 million to the coming year’s budget to provide scholarships for all those students, as well as students with disabilities who are on the waiting list for separate private-school subsidies. That would more than double the amount of money set aside for vouchers.

“We need to clear the wait list so these families have some certainty on where their kids are going to go to school,” Lee said Wednesday.

But that’s just the start. Under the 2023 plan, voucher funding would have hit a half-billion dollars by 2031. The new proposal would barrel past that mark in 2025-26, when funding would jump to $625 million. And it would keep rising every year, to $800 million in 2031.

Democratic Sen. Mike Woodard of Durham said that’s a huge change for a short session that’s supposed to be about adjusting the two-year budget.

“This is committing the state to significant amounts of money — up to $825 million over the next eight years,” he said.

There’s not really much suspense about the outcome. As Republican committee members noted, they passed the voucher expansion last year. And the GOP leaders of the state House and Senate, Tim Moore and Phil Berger, have said they support further expansion to make sure no one gets left out.

So the debate was more of a chance for voucher opponents and supporters to try out talking points.

Democratic Sens. Natasha Marcus and Gladys Robinson called the expanded scholarship program welfare for the wealthy, noting that there’s no limit on how much a family can earn and still collect a payment.

“You can earn a gazillion dollars and still qualify,” said Marcus, who represents Mecklenburg County.

She said state staff told her that more than 70% of the students on the waiting list come from income tiers where parents earn more than $115,000 for a family of four. Twenty-three percent are in the highest tier, making at least $260,000 for a family of four.

“Why is this your urgent priority to provide welfare for the wealthiest families, who are in most cases already affording to send their children to their private school?” she asked Lee.

Marcus suggested there are better uses for the money that would be carved off for vouchers just this year: “$197 million would cover North Carolina pre-K, would clear that wait list. $200 would provide child-care subsidy grants, so families can go to work and know their kids are safe. … Or we could spend it on an additional 3.4% raise for public school teachers.”

Sen. Robinson, who represents Guilford County, brought up the Leandro case. For 35 years, plaintiffs have fought for more funding for public schools — and judges have ordered the General Assembly to increase funding. But lawmakers keep fighting that order.

“This General Assembly has failed every time to fully fund Leandro to provide the social workers, the nurses, the salary for the teachers, the additional teacher assistants, etc.,” she said.

She said lawmakers shortchange public schools, then say families need alternatives to failing public schools: “Where the public schools are failing, we are failing them.”

But Republican Sen. Ralph Hise, from western North Carolina, says the vouchers are simply a different way of meeting the state constitution’s mandate to create a system of free public schools.

“We have a constitutional right to a free education,” he said, and affluent families who choose private schools shouldn’t be excluded. “This is merely treating everyone the same in the state.”

And Republican Sen. Amy Galey. who represents Alamance and Randolph counties, disputed the idea that vouchers are welfare for the wealthy.

“If we’re going to talk about high-income earners, they are the taxpayers. And this is not quote-unquote welfare if it’s actually their own money,” she said.

Galey added that two-earner couples who earn $115,000 to $260,000 are middle class, not rich.

“That can be a nurse married to a police officer,” she said. “These are hard-working American families who are desperate for a better alternative education.”

Before the increased funding won committee approval on a voice vote, Sen. Lee took one more shot. He noted that he’d looked at the applicants who fall into the highest income tier, those earning more than $260,000 for a family of four.

“The lion’s share of Tier 4 is in Wake, Meck, Forsyth, Guilford, Cumberland and Orange,” he said.

In other words, urban counties represented by Democrats. He said if any of those representatives want to amend the bill to exclude their constituents, he’d be happy to talk to them.

Sign up for our Education Newsletter

Select Your Email Format

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.