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House budget committee blocks bill that would set up school voucher program for expansion

Republican House lawmakers successfully banded together Tuesday morning in an effort to block a proposal put forward by school voucher champion Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam that would have set up the state’s new school voucher program for expansion.

Stam gutted and amended S456 to require the state to award more Opportunity Scholarships (also known as school vouchers) to kindergartners and first graders—a move that would increase waiting lists for the $4,200 scholarships that allow families to use tax dollars for tuition at private schools, many of which are religious and none of which are subject to rigorous oversight and accountability standards.

Stam told fellow lawmakers that the program has had “way more applicants for K-1 than they can handle under the existing limitation that it be no more than 35 percent” and indicated that without the change in law, the program might not be able to spend all funds this year. The change would allow more students to get vouchers in the short term, and, with longer waiting lists, demonstrate increased demand that would serve as justification for the program’s expansion in the long run.

Rep. Bryan Holloway (R-Stokes) kicked off opposition to Stam’s proposal, saying he’s not yet seen results indicating whether or not the school voucher program works in favor the low-income students it purports to help.

“Why not just move forward, come back next year, see these kids’ test scores?” said Rep. Holloway. “Look at the data. Look at the schools these kids pick. Let’s look at the data before we do this.”

Rep. Linda Johnson echoed Holloway’s sentiments, saying “we continue to put money [into school vouchers], but we don’t have any results yet.”

The Opportunity Scholarship program is moving into its second year of existence. During its inaugural 2014-15 year, the program moved forward while the state Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of sending public dollars to private, religious schools that are subject to very little oversight by the state. The state Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the program did not violate the state’s constitution, allowing it to continue.

Lawmakers voted to expand the voucher program considerably over the next two years, upping it from $11 million to $17.5 million next year and $24 million the following year.

Rep. Leo Daughtry (R-Smithfield) told the committee a private school in his district that accepted school vouchers didn’t seem fit for accepting tax dollars.

“I went to visit this school [receiving school vouchers, in his district]. It’s in a back of a church, and it has like 10 or 12 students. And one teacher. Or one and a half teachers,” said Rep. Daughtry. “And I think you need to go slow with Opportunity Scholarships. From what I saw…the school there that I visited didn’t seem to be a school that we would want to send taxpayer dollars to.”

Stam’s proposal was narrowly defeated in the House appropriations committee, 24-26, after a careful count of the ayes and noes.

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