The number of North Carolina children using tax dollars to attend private schools will at least double this fall and could climb much higher now that the school voucher program has been declared constitutional by the N.C. Supreme Court.
State officials have already awarded 2,642 scholarships for the 2015-16 school year – compared to 1,216 last year – and could issue more than 1,700 additional vouchers once the state budget is finalized. With some state lawmakers talking about expanding both the funding and the eligibility for the vouchers, public-school advocates are urging a go-slow approach on the program’s expansion.
“We’re talking about a major transfer of hard-earned taxpayer dollars to untested, unaccountable private schools, many of whom are religious oriented,” said Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of Public Schools First NC. “This should give the public great pause.”
Public Schools First urged Friday that the voucher program be evaluated next spring to see how effective it’s been in its first two years before considering further expansion.
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Voucher critics are turning to the political realm following Thursday’s 4-3 court ruling where all four Republican justices declared that the program is constitutional. Because the legal arguments were framed around language of the state constitution, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled four years ago in favor of an Arizona school voucher program, no further legal proceedings are expected.
Rep. Paul Stam, House Speaker Pro Tem, agreed that the voucher program, officially called Opportunity Scholarships, should be evaluated. But the Apex Republican said he wants to see the program expanded over time from the $10.8 million provided this past school year to $40 million annually.
Stam said he’d also like to see the income-eligibility guidelines expanded so that more families could apply.
“The income limits are negotiable,” Stam said. “I’d personally like to raise it well above it, but not everyone who is in favor of scholarships is in favor of it.”
The program, approved in 2013, provides low-income families who want to send their children to private schools with as much as $4,200 annually in taxpayer dollars. Eligibility is based on income guidelines for the school lunch program. For instance, a family of four was eligible this past school year if their income was no more than $43,568.
To be eligible, private schools had to meet conditions such as offering at least one nationally standardized test a year to voucher students and submitting the results to the state.
For the 2015-16 school year, income eligibility has been raised to 33 percent above the limit for receiving a reduced-price school lunch. For a family of five, that works out to an income of up to $69,903.
While the state budget hasn’t been finalized, both the House and Senate want to provide $17.6 million for the program this fall.
Twelve states and the District of Columbia have voucher programs similar to North Carolina’s, according to Emily Workman, a policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States, a research organization.
Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, a group that backs vouchers, said funding for the program should be in line with the demand for seats.
“I think our key goal is to make sure no family who qualifies and is eligible is standing outside,” Allison said. “Because for that child that means they’re going back to a school that is in all likelihood failing them, and we’re better than that.”
But Allison said he agreed with Brannon of Public Schools First that the program should remain focused on helping low-income families.
“In the state of North Carolina in terms of performance of children who have the most challenges, it is the low-income, working-class family,” he said. “Where we have it now in terms of the eligibility standards, that’s where we need to keep it.”
On Friday, Allison gathered with some families to celebrate the court ruling. Renee Porter of Knightdale can now afford to send her 5-year-old daughter, Carrington, to Upper Room Christian Academy in Raleigh to join her oldest son, 8-year-old Chandler.
“We were just really praying that the court would say yes to the Opportunity Scholarships,” Porter said. “And of course we are elated that they did.”
For more information on the voucher program, go to the State Education Assistance Authority website at www.ncseaa.edu/OSG.htm.