RALEIGH, N.C. (WGHP) – As the North Carolina House goes through its budget proposal – and reading/voting on the House floor was scheduled to begin today – an item on Page 171 is actually the funding for a bill that has been introduced in the Senate.

Senate Bill 406, called “Choose Your School, Choose Your Future,” is a plan to expand the eligibility to opportunity scholarships – sometimes called “vouchers” – to all families, essentially allowing families in all income brackets to withdraw the money allocated for their children’s public education and spend it in a school of their choice.

This is not new – such scholarships have been in place in North Carolina since 2013 – but this bill would greatly expand the “opportunity” for students in higher income brackets, although the priority will continue to be lower-income families.

NC Sen. Amy Galey (R-Alamance) in the Senate chamber. (WGHP)

State Sen. Amy Galey (R-Alamance) is a primary sponsor of SB 406 – Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) and Lisa Barnes (R-Nash) are the others – and she said there was a need to expand the program.

“Constituents continually support increased school choice and more access to educational options for families,” Galey said in response to an email from WGHP. “Not every school is a good fit for every child, and when there is a disconnect, the parents should have options to be sure that their child is learning and growing appropriately.”

Expanding this program isn’t cheap. There is an Opportunity Scholarship Grant Fund, and on Page 173 of the House’s latest biennial budget, there is $176.54 million penciled in for 2023-24, which is an 86% increase from the $94.84 million in the current budget.

That total would increase by another $15 million in 2024-25 (the second year of the proposed budget) and by $71 million in 2025-26.

The funding plan calls for a standard $15 million increase each year through 2031-32, peaking at $352.54 million. That’s nearly four times the current budget.

During the House budget hearing, Rep. Lindsey Prather (D-Buncombe) proposed an amendment to table the program and invest in funding a “sound basic education,” as specified in the Leandro case.

“We should keep the funding level where it is and add eligibility standards,” Prather said. “We are giving public funding for unaccountable, nonpublic schools.”

The amendment failed, 69-44, which is largely along party lines (the actual vote had not been posted).

The prorated process

Those dollars would be allocated in prorated amounts based on how a family’s income relates to the qualifying threshold for federal free or reduced lunch programs. The lower that income, the higher the availability of funding.

Those rates as outlined in the SB 406 and the House budget:

  • Students who live in households that qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program (about $55,500 annually in 2023 for a family of four) would qualify for 100% of the state’s per-pupil allotment, which was $7,426 in 2022.
  • Students in households where the income doesn’t exceed 200% of the threshold (about $111,000 in 2023) would qualify for 90% (about $6,683).
  • Students in households with incomes between 200% and 450% (about $249,750 for a family of four in 2023) would qualify for 60% ($4,456).
  • Students in households with incomes higher than that would be eligible for 45% (about $3,342).

But that plan means that some dollars would be available to everyone. North Carolina’s current program has 24,077 participants (as of last fall) at 539 schools. The average voucher value for this year is $2,739, and the distribution has risen steadily since 2015.

A vote against

State Sen. Michael Garrett (D-Greensboro)

But, like anything to do with education – think about the debate about the court’s Leandro directive to fully fund public education – this proposal has its critics and its supporters. Critics typically decry the subtraction of the per-student amount from the total budget for all students in a district.

“The school voucher program was originally proposed to provide alternative education options to low-income and middle-class families,” state Sen. Michael Garrett (D-Greensboro) wrote in response to a question from WGHP. “This proposal gives those same vouchers to the wealthiest North Carolinians.

“As a parent of two young children, I know all too well that our teachers, students, and families are expected to do more with less. Allocating $1.3B to the state’s voucher program to finance unaccountable private schools is unconscionable.”

Rep. Ashton Clemmons (D-Greensboro), the Hosue deputy Democratic leader and a former school superintendent and educator was clear in her position: “I believe our public dollars should be spent strengthening the public schools that are accessible to each and every child in our state.”

A vote for

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson (AP FILE PHOTO)

Galey’s bill, though, has a large booster in the man who figuratively is the leader of the state Senate, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, a Republican who long has been a critic of public education.

“I am thrilled about the news regarding education in North Carolina!” Robinson wrote in a series of posts on his Twitter account. “The NC Senate has just announced a plan to boost Opportunity Scholarships and provide more opportunities for students to chart their educational destinies.

“Senate Bill 406 is a step towards ensuring every child has access to quality education, regardless of their background or financial situation.

“As public servants, we must always serve the people, and that is why I applaud our legislature for its commitment to supporting our students and families here in North Carolina.”

Starting its journey

SB 406 was filed on Wednesday and assigned on Thursday to the Education/Higher Education Committee, with a planned stop in the Appropriations/Base Budget Committee before returning to the Rules Committee and, ostensibly, the Senate floor. It does not show up on the legislative calendar for either today or Thursday, but that’s always subject to change.

Galey said she had not “heard directly from a constituent who had applied for an opportunity scholarship but was denied because of excess income.”

But when the bill was announced, she was clear about the process. “Education funds should follow the student, and we must fund students not systems,” she said in a statement. “Expanding Opportunity Scholarships encourages school choice and broadens the options available to families. We must empower moms and dads to make the best decisions for their children.”