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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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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