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Packed house for school voucher bill hearing

This morning, members of the House Education Committee heard public comments only for HB 944, Opportunity Scholarship Act, also known as the school voucher bill.

The time allotted for the hearing today was cut down to one hour from two, prompting Chairman Langdon to declare that a vote on the bill would come sometime in the future, likely next week.

Rep. Rob Bryan laid out the specifics of the updated legislation. The bill would offer $4,200 maximum scholarships to students wishing to attend private schools instead of their local public schools.

Appropriations for the voucher program would be $10 million in the first year, $40 million in the second year and $50 million every year after.

Eligibility requirements were tightened somewhat from the original version of the bill: Instead of having eligible children come from households whose incomes were 300% of the federal poverty level, now household incomes can be no more than 133% of the free and reduced lunch qualification level (or 240% federal poverty level) after year two of the program.

Rep. Marcus Brandon, one of the sponsors of the bill, explained that the school voucher legislation was not a way for wealthy people to get scholarships. Brandon was a recipient of a significant amount of campaign money from the school choice movement during his 2012 run for office—25 percent of his campaign contributions came from pro-voucher investors. See that story here.

Those who spoke in support of the voucher bill included Doug Tuthill, a Floridian voucher advocate who heads Step Up for Students, which administers Florida’s tax credit scholarship program. “This bill is crafted to be very similar to Florida’s legislation,” Tuthill said.

Tuthill received $165,995 in 2011 for running Step Up for Students. Most other administrators on his staff also received well north of $100k in compensation.

Minnie Forte-Brown, vice-chair of Durham Public Schools Board of Education, spoke passionately against the bill. “More than 63 percent of North Carolinians oppose school vouchers,” said Forte-Brown.

Referring to a recent benefit for school choice legislation in Greensboro that was organized by Parents for Educational Freedom NC, Forte-Durham said “the 3,000 people who came to Greensboro came to hear the gospel singer,” and did not support school vouchers.

“Don’t be deceived—private schools will reject the students they don’t want,” said Forte-Brown.

June Atkinson, State Superintendent of Schools, NC Department of Public Instruction, spoke against the bill. “If public schools must be subject to the A-F grading system, then so should private schools that receive public funds,” said Atkinson.

It is expected that next week House Education Committee members will debate and vote on the bill.

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