Senate bill would make all students eligible for vouchers intended to help poor families pay for private schools

A senate bill filed Tuesday would remove income eligibility requirements for the state’s so-called “Opportunity Scholarships” created to help low-income families pay private school tuition.

Senate Bill 711 was filed by Sen. Ralph Hise, a Mitchell County Republican. Sen. Bob Steinburg, a Republican from Edenton and Sen. Norman W. Sanderson, a Republican from Pamlico County, are co-sponsors.

Hise did not respond to an email message about the bill on Wednesday.

SB 711 was quickly denounced by Sen. Natasha Marcus, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County.

“It seems particularly callous right now to make this a priority,” Marcus said. “increasing funding for a program that is already over-funded, that’s taking money out of the coffers that will be needed in so many other places right now. It’s just not the right priority. Funding more private school vouchers is not a critical need right now.”

The program has never used its entire state allocation since launching in 2014.

Marcus noted that the state is facing an estimated $2 billion budget shortfall.

“At a time when our state revenues are taking a huge hit, and we didn’t even pass a state budget this year and we’re not going to, and we haven’t given teachers the much overdue raise that they deserve as well as all the COVID-19-related expenses we’re going to have, this is particularly egregious in my mind, to file a bill like this,” Marcus said.

She said the bill appears to be another attack on public schools and a blow against the mandate in the state’s constitution to provide all students with an opportunity to receive a sound basic education.

“This is part of a pattern for them [conservative lawmakers],” Marcus said. “They’d rather funnel money into these private schools that have very little accountability to the state about what they teach, who is teaching there and about any kind of outcomes for kids.”

Marcus said she’s not against private schools, only against spending “taxpayer money” to support them.

“I hope that people will see that this bill is an attempt to make North Carolina taxpayers bankroll private school education for an even greater number of families at a time when we’re taking a $2 billion hit in our budget,” she said.

SB 711 would pour millions more into the program that provides as much as $4,200 year for families to send children to private schools.

Hise’s bill would add an additional $2 million to the program’s budget each year beginning next school year through the 2026-27 school year.

The program, for example, is set to receive $74.8 million next school year. It would $76.8 million under SB 711.

State law mandates that the program’s budget increases by an additional $10 million each year. It would increase by $12 million next school year to incorporate the additional $2 million, then increase $10 million each subsequent year until the 2026-27 school year. The cummulative effect over seven years would be an additional $14 million above the amount originial authorized.

The program’s budget would jump another $10 million — from $136.8 million to $146.8 million — for the 2027-28 school year. The $146.8 million would establish a “base” budget for the program.

This school year, 12,283 students received $47. 7 million to attend 451 private schools.

The previous school year, 9,651 recipients received $38 million in private school vouchers.

Public school advocates contend the voucher program weakens public schools by shifting valuable resources to private schools. They also say there’s no evidence that students who received them perform better. They also complain the program fosters school segregation and lacks academic accountability.

Meanwhile, voucher proponents say the scholarship provide low-and moderate-income families with financial assistance to flee failing schools and to choose schools that better fit their children.

Mike Long, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

Here’s what he had to say about the scholarships in a PEFNC newsletter in February.

“These scholarships provide up to $4,200 each year for students from over 12,000 low-income and working-class families to flourish in the educational environment of their parent’s choice,” Long wrote. “That is a privilege that more fortunate North Carolina families already enjoy — those with the incomes high enough to buy a house in a good public school district or pay private school tuition on their own. Without Opportunity Scholarships, low-income families can remain stuck.”

 

Education leaders urge lawmakers to continue free meals for K-12 students

School nutrition staff feed children at Southwest Elementary School in 2020.

Hungry children can’t learn, NC Association of Educators President Tamika Walker Kelly said Wednesday.

Kelly’s comment came during a noon press conference held to urge state lawmakers to pass two bills to provide the state’s 1.5 million K-12 students with free breakfast and lunch.

State funding is needed because a federal pandemic-era program that has funded free school breakfast and lunch since March 2020 will expire June 30 unless Congress takes action to keep it afloat.

“As educators, we know first-hand that hungry students can’t learn,” Kelly said. “Extending the free breakfast and lunch program gives students and families some peace of mind that kids will have reliable, healthy meals every day.”

Tamika Walker Kelly (Left) and Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed (Right)

Kelly said that North Carolina is ranked 8th in childhood poverty and one in five kids is food insecure. Over half of North Carolina students are eligible for free or reduced meals, she said.

Data provided by NC Child, a nonprofit that works to eliminate barriers to kids’ success, show that 17.9% of the state’s children live in poverty and that 20% live in households that are food insecure.

Senate Bill 855 and Senate Bill 856 would require the NC Department of Public Instruction to allocate money for school breakfast and lunch at no cost.

“We can’t wait for Congress to act,” Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed, the Mecklenburg County Democrat who sponsored the bills. “We have the power, and the funding available in North Carolina to extend this crucial program for K-12 students in the next school year.”

Mohammed wants the bills included in budget technical corrections next week.

“Food insecurity for students has been a chronic problem, even before the pandemic,” Mohammed said. “Now, with the rising cost of food, that crisis is far from over.

U.S. Representative Alma Adams, a Charlotte Democrat, fought to keep the federal program alive last week, telling congressional colleagues that millions of children will go hungry if the program expires, the Charlotte Observer reported.

“Even as the pandemic continues and food prices are on the rise, these waivers are set to expire,” Adams said. “As a 40-year educator, I know hunger has been a crisis in our schools and our communities since long before the pandemic.”

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt and State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis have urged U.S. Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis to support legislation to keep the federal program in place.

“The loss of these waivers will devastate school meal programs and threaten their sustainability,” Truitt and Davis wrote in a letter to the senators dated June 10. “School meals will be jeopardized for thousands of North Carolina students who depend upon them as their primary source of food during the week.”

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House moves bill to remove pilot status from state’s virtual charter schools

North Carolina’s two virtual charter schools would become permanent fixtures on the state’s school choice landscape if a bill approved by the House on Thursday becomes law.

Senate Bill 671 to remove the pilot status from N.C. Cyber Academy (NCCA) and N.C. Virtual Academy (NCVA) was approved on a 72-23 vote, and was returned to the Senate. The schools would be granted five-year charters, then be eligible to apply for a 10-year renewal after the 2026-27 school year.

Rep. Jeffrey Elmore

“What we are doing with this, is we’re putting them in the rotation to be at the same standards as the other charter schools,” said Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, a Wilkes County Republican. “It ends the pilot status.”

The two charters provide remote learning to thousands of students across the state. Making them permanent will provide parents and students in small districts with remote learning options, Elmore said.

The proposed law would allow school districts to create or continue remote academies permitted during the pandemic. Smaller districts don’t have the resources to create such academies, Elmore said.

Several lawmakers complained that House members didn’t have enough time to “digest” the bill. The bill is dated June 8. Some lawmakers said they saw it for the first time Thursday.

Rep. Abe Jones

“I can’t digest it that fast,” Rep. Abe Jones, a Wake County Democrat said.

Elmore said the state’s remote learning efforts have been like the “wild, wild west” with districts doing “whatever, however, whenever” to provide students with virtual learning opportunities.

SB 671, Elmore said, will put parameters around remote learning to ensure students receive quality instruction.

If the bill becomes law, districts, for example, could continue to provide remote learning when inclement weather forces schools to close. And beginning in the 2023-24 school year, districts could establish permanent remote academies to accommodate students and parents who believe remote learning is best for their family’s situation.

The bill also repeals the sunset clause permitting limited virtual instruction during emergency conditions and allows schools that provided virtual instruction this year to provide it next year.

The state’s two virtual charter schools have been widely criticized for their poor academic performance. Both schools have earned school performance letter grades of “D” every year since opening for the 2015-16 school year. Lawmakers waived letter grade requirements for the 2019-2020 school year because schools closed in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pilot program was created in 2015. It was supposed to end after the 2018-19 school year. But lawmakers extended them through the 2022-23 and increased their enrollment caps. Both schools have claimed to have long waiting lists.

On Thursday, Jones argued that children learn best in traditional school settings.

“The best education, in my opinion, humbly submitted, is the education that you get when you mix and mingle and sit with your backside in the seat with the teacher up front and you mix and mingle with your fellow students,” Jones said.

Rep. Larry Pittman, a Republican from Cabarrus County, agreed with Jones. He said the bill feels rushed.

“I do have some concerns about what happened the last couple of years,” Pittman said. “When schools got shut down and everything, we all know, whether you want to admit it or not, that education suffered during this virtual stuff.”

Rep. David Willis, a Union County Republican, said some students learn better remotely.

“We’ve got to have opportunities for students to learn the way that fits them best, that fit their family situation best,” Willis said. “Not all children are designed to be in a classroom, sitting there for several hours a day in that same type of system that we’ve had for 30 years.”

Rep. Jay Adams, a Catawba County Republican, said the state must continue to improve its virtual school offerings.

“We did not have an opportunity to properly develop it [remote learning] during the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we should let it go,” Adams said. “I think this bill is a good beginning point for us to continue the development of remote learning.”