NC bill advances to help parents pay for private schools

lbonner@newsobserver.comMay 29, 2013 

A plan to provide taxpayer money for low-income children to attend private schools cleared a significant hurdle Tuesday after hours of arguments about parental choice and the impact on public schools.

The 27-21 vote in the House Education Committee was a significant victory for lawmakers who support what they call “opportunity scholarships,” operators of private and religious schools, and parents who want to remove their children from public schools. Supporters have been working for years on a way to provide tuition assistance for K-12 parents through vouchers or tax credits.

Though the measure still needs to get through at least one more House committee and win approval from the full House and Senate, Tuesday’s vote gives the plan to have taxpayer money pay for private K-12 schools momentum it has never before had in the state.

The bill would spend $50 million over two years on vouchers: $10 million in the next school year to send 2,000 students, and $40 million the following year for an additional 7,000 students.

The Senate did not include money for vouchers in the budget it passed last week, but the grants may find a receptive Senate audience if the House approves them.

“I’ve generally been in favor of moving toward giving parents more of a say in what happens with their kids,” Senate leader Phil Berger said Tuesday. The Senate Republican caucus has not discussed vouchers, said Berger, an Eden Republican, but “I would think there are a number of folks who would be fairly interested.”

A dozen states and Washington, D.C., have voucher programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Eight states offer vouchers to special-needs students, and four states and Washington offer them to low-income students or students from failing public schools.

The House earlier this month passed a bill that provides $6,000 toward the tuition for students with disabilities who want to attend private school. It has been sitting in the Senate education committee since it passed the House.

Parents’ ‘God-given right’

Researchers don’t agree whether voucher recipients do better in school.

But the issue exposes acrimony between those who say vouchers open more choices to parents and those who say vouchers will siphon taxpayer money from public schools.

“I would suggest that parents have a God-given right” to determine what their children need, said Rep. Bert Jones, a Reidsville Republican.

The bill has bipartisan support and bipartisan opposition.

“This bill robs Peter to pay Paul,” said Rep. Chris Whitmire, a Republican and former chairman of the Transylvania County school board. The rural western counties he represents offer few options for affordable private education, Whitmire said, while public schools in his district are producing stellar results on little money.

Though $4,200 wouldn’t go very far toward tuition at some of the state’s best-known private schools, voucher supporters have spent a lot of time arguing that the money would put private education within reach for those who want to attend church schools or places like Thales Academy, a private school in Wake that costs $5,300 a year. Other schools, such as Ravenscroft in Raleigh, cost $20,335 for grades six through 12.

The state has 698 private schools, with religious schools attracting more than two-thirds of the private-school enrollment.

Church-affiliated schools have been among the measure’s most prominent backers.

A group called Concerned Pastors for Private Education said the legislature should go further and pay for some eligible children who are already enrolled in private school.

“There is no consideration made (for) the current populace,” said Pastor Donald Fozard of Mount Zion Christian Academy in Durham.

The school is the alma mater of future pro-basketball players Tracy McGrady, Amar’e Stoudemire and Jarrett Jack.

Funding

The program is limited in its first year to students who qualify for the national school lunch program.

For a family of three, that’s $36,131. In the second year, it expands to families earning up to 133 percent of that income level.

Voucher opponents worry that the program will expand once it has a foothold.

“Once you open that pot of public money, the General Assembly is going to get an infinite number of demanding parents down here,” said Natalie Beyer, a Durham County school board member and a volunteer board member with the group Public Schools First NC. “The money will grow.”

Rep. Alma Adams, a Greensboro Democrat, said she supports parental choice, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of public schools.

State per-pupil spending has fallen relative to other states, and public school supporters don’t want money taken for vouchers to further erode K-12 budgets.

“This money will diminish what we can do for funding our public schools,” Adams said. “It ultimately will dismantle public schools, and that’s really the underlying motive here.”

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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