NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A Cape Fear senator’s bill to expand North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship, allowing the government to pay for any family to attend private school, is taking some heat from progressive groups.
The bipartisan Choose Your School, Choose Your Future bill, sponsored by Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover), received a favorable report from the Senate education committee yesterday, to the chagrin of some progressive groups.
The North Carolina NAACP issued a statement on Thursday denouncing the removal of income caps on the scholarship, which families use to pay for private school tuition.
“Private schools have a history of exclusion and discrimination, and removing income caps would only widen the gap between wealthy and low-income families,” President Deborah Maxwell, of New Hanover County, said in a press release. “This bill would benefit only a select few, while depriving the majority of North Carolina students of the resources they need to thrive.”
When introduced in 2014, the Opportunity Scholarship program was intended for low-income families to send their children to a school that works better for them, instead of the assigned public school district. Under current guidelines, a family will qualify only if earning less than 200% of the amount required for free or reduced lunch qualification — less than $55,500 for a family of four.
Between new enrollees and renewals, more than 25,000 students were awarded a scholarship this school year, marking the largest expansion in North Carolina private school enrollment since 1971.
The awards went up to $6,492 this school year, coming from a state pot totalling almost $95 million.
Lee’s bill removes the income cap, replacing it with a sliding scale of reward amounts. If a student qualifies for free or reduced lunch, they are entitled to 100% of the average per-pupil allocation — $10,791 in 2020.
A family of four making between 100% and 200% of the amount for a subsidized meal would get 90% of the reward — $55,500 and $111,000 a year. Between 200% to 450% — $111,000 and $249,750 a year — would yield 60% of the voucher amount.
For a family making anything above 450% — $249,750 — their student would get 45% of the reward.
This new award method allows even the wealthiest families to obtain scholarships, awarded based on a lottery, according to the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority, which manages the program.
“It’s the role of state government to help all students of North Carolina,” Lee said during a press conference Wednesday.
He referred to the award method as “backpack funding,” as the student will carry state funding regardless of where they go to school.
The NAACP and other critics of the bill claim the expansion will hurt public schools by drawing funding and resources away where it’s needed. They note most scholarships, which are taxpayer contributions, are used to attend private religious schools that may bar certain students, namely those that identify as LGBTQ+ and do not align the school’s beliefs from attendance.
The state also exercises less oversight and regulation of private schools, therefore, student outcomes are less clear.
The scholarship program funding pool is expected to increase to $430 million by the 2026-2027 school year, whereas it would only grow to $231 million if the expansion bill fails to pass. Lee said the scholarships are calculated to be 1.1% of the overall education budget and less than 4% of the Department of Public Instruction budget.
While the additional money will accommodate more students, Lee stated during his press conference the award amounts will decrease over time.
Aside from the controversial Opportunity Scholarship portion of the bill, Lee’s legislation also includes a three-year track for high school students intending to graduate early. He cited the inability for many students to accomplish this already because they are not able to double up their four required English credits. By mandating a three-year track across each district, students will be able to enter the workforce earlier.
While Republicans in both chambers push for funding school choice, many have resisted implementing the court-mandated Leandro remedial plan. It calls for the legislature, having unconstitutionally underfunded public schools for decades, to infuse billions of dollars into education funding and revise the state funding method.
An audience member asked how state leadership can fight funding the Leandro plan (it sits on a $3 billion surplus) while finding the money to bankroll the scholarship expansion.
“To rely on a static plan based upon a lawsuit that was initiated almost 30 years ago is kind of laughable,” Lee said.
The Senate bill has enough support — all 30 Republicans — to pass its chamber. The House of Representatives has its own version in the works, put forth by recent turncoat Tricia Cotham (R-Mecklenburg). She told the audience during Wednesday’s press conference that she was originally anti-school choice, yet that view changed during conversations with other lawmakers and when her son began attending a private school.
“This is a movement we’re seeing all across the country,” Cotham said.
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at email@example.com