Both House and Senate leaders have now introduced bills (H32 in the House, S671 in the Senate) overhauling North Carolina’s three voucher programs in an apparent effort to see who can do more to dismantle public schools. Both bills are long, complex, and would further subsidize students in unregulated private schools at the expense of their peers in inclusive public schools.
Currently, North Carolina has three voucher programs. Both bills would modify all three vouchers.
The first, and by far the largest, is the Opportunity Scholarship program. This program was originally designed to provide vouchers of up to $4,200 to North Carolinians with low incomes (up to 185% of the federal poverty level). Subsequent modifications have increased the income eligibility to 278% of the federal poverty level ($72,705 for a family of four). For this year, the General Assembly appropriated $75 million to the program. Under current law, funding for this voucher is set to increase by $10 million per year until annual appropriations reach $145 million – the state’s only education program with guaranteed funding increases.
The second-largest program is the Disabilities Grant voucher. This voucher provides up to $8,000 per year for students with disabilities who enroll in a nonpublic school. Unlike the Opportunity Scholarship, there are no family income limits on eligibility. This program is currently funded at nearly $16 million.
Finally, North Carolina also has the Education Savings Account that is also only open to families of students with disabilities. These “vouchers on steroids” provide families with debit cards of up to $9,000 per year that can be used to purchase tuition, educational technology, or other educational services. These programs have little oversight, and have been littered with fraud. North Carolina currently commits nearly $7 million to this program.
It is important to note that under both the Disabilities Grant and the Education Savings Account, families are foregoing their federal rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. These foregone rights include, “the rights being waived can include the right to a free education; the right to the same level of special-education services that a child would be eligible for in a public school; the right to a state-certified or college-educated teacher; and the right to a hearing to dispute disciplinary action against a child.” Many families are unaware that private schools do not have to comply with federal laws.
H32 and S671 would modify all three of these programs, and not for the better. None of the changes strengthen the nearly nonexistent accountability or quality standards of the voucher schools. Too many state-subsidized voucher schools will continue to rely on curricula that echoes “the rhetoric of Christian nationalism, often with overtones of nativism, militarism and racism as well.” There are no additional protections against fraud. And parents of students with disabilities will continue to be cut adrift, having to navigate an unregulated market with no federal rights.
Both bills would move our state in the wrong direction by draining resources from public schools, reducing oversight, and undermining the idea of education as a shared societal benefit by increasingly turning education into an every-man-for-himself enterprise.
It is unclear what is next for these bills. Both enjoy the sponsorship of powerful members from their respective chambers, so it is likely that some combination of these changes will ultimately pass out of the General Assembly, either as an individual bill or rolled into a budget bill.