RALEIGH, N.C. (WGHP) – The North Carolina House took the opportunity on Wednesday to expand vouchers for students of all income categories to attend private schools.

This is the bill that has been debated and argued for weeks, but this was a particularly confrontational meeting that included admonishments, one insult and an apology before members voted, 65-45, along party lines on second reading.

House Speaker Tim Moore declared that “the ayes have it” on third reading, even though the nays sounded louder, and thus this bill will move to the Senate, because there is a twin bill (SB 406) that already has moved along.

Rep. Tricia Cotham (R-Mecklenburg) was the bill’s presenting sponsor.

House Bill 823, the bill debated for the better part of three hours, is focused on what lawmakers call “opportunity scholarships,” and the funding for this endeavor already is included in the biennial budget being debated in the Senate and headed to conference. An amendment to remove that expenditure from the working budget bill was defeated in the Senate just after this bill was advanced.

Newly minted Republican Rep. Tricia Cotham of Mecklenburg County was the presenter of the bill, and she called it “a great day for children in North Carolina. … This is the largest and most expansive school choice bill that the state has seen.”

She said the vouchers are “important to so many families. Education is not ‘one size fits all.’ I am a strong supporter of traditional public schools, of charter schools and private schools.”

The long discussion that ensued included many Democrats who spoke passionately against the concept because they feel that vouchers-for-all takes money from public education and provides it for students who already had chosen private schools and could afford to pay for it. All of their amendments were defeated.

“May 17 is the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education,” Rep. Lindsey Prather (D-Buncombe) said. “When that decision came down, they immediately started working to find ways around it. Make no mistake, this bill is an expansion on those efforts. You’re going to pass it on this anniversary and gut our educational system.”

Expanding this program isn’t cheap. There is an Opportunity Scholarship Grant Fund, and on Page 173 of the House’s latest biennial budget – which the Senate debated Wednesday – there is $176.54 million penciled in for 2024-25 (adjusted by the Senate), which is an 86% increase from the $94.84 million in the current budget. It could be changed as the budgets are coordinated in the conference process.

Those rates as outlined in 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.

Rep. Amos Quick (WGHP)

One amendment did pass, but it came from Cotham, and it only changed the implementation year to 2024-25. No other amendment came any closer to being adopted than a 69-34 vote. That was 69 votes against.

There were proposals to kill the program and return the funds to public school budgets. There were proposals to eliminate students who already are enrolled and paying for private school. There were accountability suggestions

Rep. Rosa U. Gill (D-Wake) asked Coatham about taking money from public schools and giving it to private schools. “No money taken for this legislation is coming form our public school fund,” Cotham said.

Rep. Amber Baker (D-Forysth) (WGHP)

Rep. Amber Baker (D-Forsyth) wanted to know how many scholarships had been given to students who are on free and reduced lunch? That’s 25,524 she was told.

“No students are asking for greater access to private schools,” Rep. Amos Quick (D-Greensboro) said, discussing a conversation he had with students. “They say we need teachers. Not one of those students asked to be moved for another school or for a voucher.”

Cotham said that “many who oppose need to use false data or use data differently … to create false narratives. Comparing apples to pears is not acceptable. Fuzzy math was used.”

She encouraged members to “get out of your political bubble and to visit a private school.”

Said Rep. Abe Jones (D-Durham): “We don’t need to strain off money for private sector. We need to strengthen the public schools. The private boys are going to do fine. Why drag public money away from public schools?”

That comment drew a question from Rep. Jeffrey McNeely (R-Iredell), who interrupted Jones, a former judge, to ask: “I know you went to public schools and to Harvard and to Harvard Law. Could you have achieved this if you were not an athlete or a minority?”

This drew loud response from the members, and Rep. Robert Reives II (D-Randolph), the Democratic House leader – who had spoken at length earlier about an insult about a “church of Satan” that a member had uttered to reporters after the abortion bill vote the night before – arose in outrage to object and to ask McNeely if he actually said that.

Jones, for his part, just answered by saying that he made it through Harvard just fine on his own merits. That drew a loud, standing ovation from the members.

At the end of the voting on the bill – and after his remarks had become public on social media – McNeely responded with an apology.

“I deeply apologize to Rep. Jones and to this entire body,” McNeely said. “I respect Rep. Jones. I think he’s a great legislator and a great man. What I tried to ask didn’t come out right. I will apologize [in person] to Rep. Jones.”