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NC voucher expansion has GOP support, but didn’t materialize in state budget

Nan Durban uses Orton-Gillingham techniques to teach phonics to students at Trinity Episcopal School.
Ann Doss Helms
Nan Durban teahes phonics to students at Trinity Episcopal School, where some students receive Opportunity Scholarships.

An infusion of cash to clear the waiting list for North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarships — public money that helps families pay private-school tuition — seemed like a sure thing.

Last year’s eligibility expansion led to a surge in applications: 72,000 new students seeking scholarships for 2024-25, compared with fewer than 12,000 the year before. That meant the money allocated ran out with more than 50,000 students still on the waiting list.

Republican leaders of the state House and Senate agreed to pump $248 million into the current budget to clear that list before schools opened. With the state running a surplus, the money was there. And the GOP had enough votes to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s near-certain veto.

But when the General Assembly adjourned last week without updating the budget, the additional voucher money was a casualty, with the start of the school year less than two months away.

Mike Long, of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, a leading voucher advocacy group, called the lack of action “a head-scratcher.”

“We are frustrated. We’re disappointed for these families, because we are certainly hearing from them with their frustration and disappointment,” he said Monday.

Income cap removed

The Opportunity Scholarship program was launched in 2013 as a way to give low- and moderate-income families access to private schools that might provide better outcomes than their public schools. The upcoming school year is the first time there were no income limits for applicants, though families in lower income tiers got first priority and larger scholarships.

Kathy Hastings, communications director for the agency that administers the voucher money, said Tuesday there's $293.5 million available for 2024-25 scholarships and administrative costs.

In April, the agency said that was enough to cover recipients from the previous year who would continue in the program and all the new applicants in the lowest income tier — about 13,500 students with family income below $58,000 for a family of four. They’re eligible for almost $7,500 in tuition assistance.

In the second tier, which goes up to about $115,000 for a family of four, almost 2,300 recipients were chosen by lottery to receive scholarships up to $6,700. That left most of the second-tier families on the waiting list, along with all of those earning more than $115,000.

About 55,000 students remain on the waiting list, Hastings said Tuesday.

Legislative wrangling

In this year’s legislative short session, the Senate passed a standalone bill that would have provided $248 million to clear the wait list for Opportunity Scholarships, along with $24.7 million to clear the waitlist for a separate program that provides tuition assistance for students with disabilities. But the House took no action on that bill, instead folding voucher funding into its budget bill.

House Speaker Tim Moore said the House wanted to pair the vouchers with more public school funding, including additional teacher raises proposed in the House's budget bill.

"We feel like it needs to be done in a comprehensive manner, for doing more with the surplus to help the traditional public schools," Moore told reporters after the session. "I think it's going to happen. It's just a matter of when."

The adjournment resolution lists several dates later this year when the legislature will reconvene. But even if lawmakers reach agreement on additional voucher money, it will come after the school year starts.

“The 52,000 families have to make decisions for school now,” Long said.

It’s not clear how many families on the waiting list can afford to attend private school without a scholarship. For the first time, the program is open to families whose kids are already in private schools without aid. There were also almost 13,000 applicants in the highest income tier, with parents making more than $260,000 for a family of four.

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Updated: July 2, 2024 at 6:36 PM EDT
Updated to include new information about the size of the waiting list and the money available for scholarships.
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.