Politics & Government

Should a family making $70,000 get a private school voucher? Some NC lawmakers say yes.

Millions of dollars go unspent annually in a state program paying for students to attend private schools. So some North Carolina lawmakers want to expand who is eligible to receive vouchers.

The N.C. Senate voted 27-18 on Wednesday to modify the Opportunity Scholarship Program, including expanding the income eligibility requirements and eliminating the limit on the number of kindergarten and first-grade students who can be served. Much of the floor debate Wednesday was over how the bill would now allow a family of four making $71,456 a year to receive a voucher.

“All these changes really ultimately lead to expanded access for more working families to benefit from these scholarship programs,” said Sen. Deanna Ballard, a Watauga County Republican and one of the bill’s primary sponsors.

But Sen. Natasha Marcus, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, said that a family making $70,000 a year would be above the state’s median household income of $50,000.

“This is no longer going to be a program that was as originally designed,” Marcus said. “Instead it’s going to be one for relatively high-income families to send their kids to private schools even if they can and probably are now affording private school from their own funds.”

The vote went largely along partisan lines, with every Republican voting yes and all but one Democrat voting no.

Senate Bill 609 now goes to the House.

Opportunity Scholarships, approved in 2013, provide up to $4,200 a year to help parents send their children to private schools. The program has never used all the money allocated, leaving millions unspent each year. But a spending plan approved in 2017 calls for increasing the budget by $10 million a year, from $44.8 million in 2017-18 to $144.8 million in 2027-28.

According to the N.C. State Education Assistance Authority, $37.7 million has been issued this school year to 9,640 recipients.

The bill would raise the income eligibility limit for families to being 150 percent of the amount required for qualifying for the federal free-and-reduced price lunch program. The current limit is 133 percent.

Under current requirements for the 2019-20 school year a household making $70,000 wouldn’t be eligible for a partial scholarship unless it had at least five people. A household making $70,000 wouldn’t be eligible for a full scholarship currently unless it had at least seven people.

Despite the income eligibility increase, Ballard noted that a study by N.C. State found that the median household income for new voucher recipients is $16,213. After questions were raised about the figure’s use during the Senate floor debate, N.C. State revised the report to say that $16,213 is the median adjusted household income.

The bill also eliminates a cap that said that no more than 40 percent of scholarships could be given to students entering kindergarten and first grade. Ballard said the cap prevented 520 children from getting scholarships this year.

“This bill really does ease some of those cries from parents that we have been listening to as far as their access to those funds,” Ballard said.

Instead of finding new ways to spend the money on vouchers, some lawmakers said the unspent money should be redirected back to help students in low-performing public schools.

“Rather than sitting here with more funds in the Opportunity Scholarship program that are being unutilized and changing the terms and conditions to broaden it to bring in people who were not intended to qualify for the program, we should rethink the Opportunity Scholarship program,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat.

But Sen. Harry Brown, an Onslow County Republican, said lawmakers should be supporting options that give choices for families, including being able to go to private schools. He said the competition from vouchers has been good for the public schools.

“I think it’s made our public schools better because our public schools realize they’ve got to get better,” Brown said.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.