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.”


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Judge in Leandro school funding case could order lawmakers to fund $1.7 billion improvement plan on Wednesday

The judge overseeing North Carolina’s long-running school funding case could order the state to hand over $1.7 billion from the state’s rainy-day account to pay for the next two years of a comprehensive education improvement plan.

Superior Court Judge David Lee could enforce the $1.7 billion plan recommended by plaintiffs in decades-old Leandro v. State of North Carolina during a court hearing Wednesday.

“To allow the State to indefinitely delay funding for a Leandro remedy when adequate revenues exist would effectively deny the existence of a constitutional right to a sound basic education and effectively render the Constitution and the Supreme Court’s Leandro decisions meaningless,” the order reads.

The state currently has a $6 billion budget surplus.

The Leandro case was brought by five school districts in low-wealth counties that argued their districts did not have enough money to provide children a quality education.

In 1997, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling, later reconfirmed in 2004, in which it held that every child has a right to a “sound basic education” that includes competent and well-trained teachers and principals and equitable access to resources.

Lee hired WestEd, an independent consultant to develop recommendations to improve North Carolina’s public schools. The school improvement plan is based on that report.

WestEd’s recommendations include staffing each classroom with a competent, well-trained teacher; staffing each school with a competent, well-trained principal and identifying the resources necessary to ensure that all children have an equal opportunity to obtain a sound, basic education, among others.

Under the plan proposed by the plaintiffs, the state’s public schools would receive $1.5 billion, $190 million would go to the Department of Health and Human Services and $41 million to the UNC System.

The state’s Republican leadership has questioned whether Lee has the authority to issue an order forcing the state to fund the school improvement plan.

The judge will order the spending despite the North Carolina Supreme Court ruling as recently as 2020 that “the power of the purse is the exclusive prerogative of the General Assembly,” Senate Leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham, said in a statement.

Berger referenced a report by WRAL-TV that found Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration paid most of the $2 million for the WestEd report. He contends the defendants and the plaintiffs in the case are political allies.

“They paid a group of consultants to recommend a spending plan favored by and funded by the Cooper Administration, and they found an unelected judge to order the spending over the objections of the legislature,” Berger said.

The state is without a budget as Lee considers the court order.

On Monday, State Superintendent Catherine urged lawmakers to quickly reach an agreement on a budget that includes funding to address challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I like to think there is widespread agreement that perfect cannot be the enemy of the good and while more can be done with more resources, $330 million dollars to address unfinished learning and issues stemming from COVID-19 school years is better than $0 dollars; a 3%, 5% or 10% raise for teachers is undoubtedly better than no raise; and roughly $80 million in funding to modernize school business platforms and provide cyber security to PSUs [school districts] across our state is much better than $0,” Truitt said.

The superintendent said “many crises” loom in K-12 education if a budget isn’t passed.

Licensure system and human resources management systems and other such contracts will soon expire and the burden of paying them could shift to school districts if a budget isn’t approved, Truitt said.

“While I understand that negotiations continue to play out, I want to make it clear that the Department of Public Instruction – and NC’s K-12 education system at large – is facing considerable obstacles while we wait in limbo.,” she said “If a budget is not signed, hardship will be experienced, yet again, across our state with severe implications for our students, our teachers, and our school support staff.”

She asked lawmakers to remove politics from the budget process.

“If both branches of government are unable to reach a compromise, my hope is that a budget can still be put forth for a vote,” Truitt said. “Should this vote come to fruition, I would hope that no pressure be applied to legislators in voting for or against it, as they should be allowed to represent their constituents rather than feel pressured to support a political party.”

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