Senate bill would increase maximum amount families receive for school vouchers

In a move that’s sure to spark controversy, Senate Republicans on Wednesday filed a bill to increase school voucher awards by $2,300.

Parents use state vouchers to help pay tuition at private and religious schools. Currently, families can receive awards of up to $4,200. Senate Bill 671 would push the maximum award to $6,500.

Sens. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) and Deanna Ballard (R-Watauga), who co-chairs the Senate Education Committee, sponsored SB 671.

“It’s clear that after a year of being forced into ‘virtual learning’ working-class families want a bigger say in their child’s education and Opportunity Scholarships can give them back their voice,” Lee said in a statement.

The bill would increase income eligibility from 150% to 175 % of the amount required to qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program.

“Under this bill, a single mother making less than $56,400 would be eligible to receive an Opportunity Scholarship for her child,” according to a statement posted on Senate leader Phil Berger’s website.

The bill also combines the Special Education Scholarships for Students with Disabilities and Personal Education Savings Accounts. The two would become the Personal Education Student Accounts for Children with Disabilities.

SB 671 comes in the wake of House Bill 32 that would substantially expand eligibility for school vouchers by no longer requiring voucher recipients to be enrolled in a public school unless they are entering kindergarten or first grade.

HB 32 would also increase the value of vouchers by setting the maximum award at 70% of the state average pupil allocation in the prior fiscal year for the 2022-23 school year, then raising the maximum award to 80% of the state average pupil allocation in the 2023-24 school year and beyond.

The state average per public allocation is currently $6,585, so the maximum voucher award would be more approximately $4,610 next school year at 70% of the state average.

“The changes would funnel taxpayer funds to increasingly subsidize payments to families who were already planning to enroll in private schools,” Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst with the NC Justice Center’s Education and Law Project wrote in February. “The bill is estimated to cost the state $159 million over the next nine years.”

Policy Watch is a project of the NC Justice Center.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s 2020 budget proposal would have effectively killed the voucher program by cutting it by $85 million to help pay for other education and teacher support programs.

Cooper has said the voucher program lacks accountability.

Ballard said Cooper wants to deny low-and middle-income families a chance to attend better schools.

“Gov. Cooper is withholding access to educational opportunities, ensuring that private education is only accessible to the wealthy,” she said. “For all the talk about equity and fairness, ending the Opportunity Scholarship program would only hurt the students Gov. Cooper claims to care about the most.” 

The General Assembly created the school voucher program in 2013. It provides $4,200 per year to parents to pay part of the tuition at a private school. The State Education Assistance Authority handed out 12,284 vouchers to private schools during the 2019-2020 school year.

The program has been a target of criticism by public school advocates who complain it allows private schools to siphon money from underfunded public schools.

The N.C. Association of Educators and a group of parents filed a lawsuit in July charging that the state’s Opportunity Scholarships operates with little state oversight and that some schools benefiting from the program discriminate based on religion and sexual orientation.

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