Gov. Cooper’s spending plan would phase out school voucher program

Gov. Roy Cooper’s biennium spending plan calls for phasing out the controversial and underutilized “Opportunity Scholarships” created to help defray the cost of private schools for low-income families.

Cooper made a similar proposal last year that never gained traction.

Under his current plan, recipients would continue to receive vouchers of up to $4,200 as long as they are eligible but no new scholarships would be awarded starting in fiscal year 2019-20.

Funding for the program would be reduced gradually and eventually phased out.

Data from the North Carolina Education Assistance Authority (NCEAA) shows that the Opportunity Scholarship program was over-funded by approximately $16.8 million in fiscal year 2017-18.

The state appropriated $44.8 million to subsidize tuition costs for students attending private schools but issued only $28.1 million.

State Budget Director Charlie Perusse said Tuesday the proposal reflects the governor’s belief that “public money should go to public schools.”

Perusse made his comments after a joint legislative meeting Tuesday to discuss the governor’s education budget priorities.

State Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who co-chairs the House Education Committee, said he will oppose efforts to end the voucher program.

“We’ve got too many kids across this state, particularly in the under-served areas, who truly need an option to improve things for themselves,” Horn said.

Horn acknowledged the state needs to reevaluate how it allocates the money in the wake of reports showing  that the program has been over-funded.

He also said the state must rethink guaranteed funding increases for the voucher program. Funding for the program is set to increase by $10 million per year through fiscal year 2027-28.

“I’m generally not happy with automatic growth because I want to see results,” Horn said.

Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina (PEFNC) said Cooper’s proposal sends the wrong message to low-income families.

“It’s disappointing, though not surprising, that [Gov.] Roy Cooper would once again prioritize a one-size-fits-all education system ahead of low-income families by attacking the very program providing thousands of North Carolina students equal access to a quality education,” said PEFNC President Mike Long.

There were 7,766 new applications for grants as of March 7, according to the NCAEE website. The deadline to apply is June 1.

Critics of “Opportunity Scholarships” contend there’s no evidence that students receiving them perform better. They also complain the program takes money from public schools, promotes schools segregation and lacks academic accountability.

The Public School Forum of North Carolina, a Raleigh-based nonpartisan organization that focuses on improving educational outcomes for North Carolina’s children, has called for a moratorium on increased funding to the program until lawmakers pass legislation that provides more “robust” financial oversight and evidence that students who receive the vouchers are performing better academically in private school settings.

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