Politics & Government

Dan Forest wants every NC family to be eligible for a private school voucher

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest wants to let every North Carolina family, regardless of their income, be able to receive a state-funded voucher to attend a private school.

Forest made school choice the central piece of his education plan that he released Thursday morning in his campaign to win the Republican nomination for governor in 2020. Forest said he’d continue to give priority for low-income families to receive the vouchers through a weighted selection lottery but would expand the eligibility criteria “to allow every family in North Carolina the chance to choose a school that works for them.”

“Parents should have a choice in education,” Forest said in one of a series of videos released Thursday to accompany his education platform. “They should have a choice where their students actually attend school.”

The Opportunity Scholarship program was approved in 2013 by state lawmakers to provide up to $4,200 a year to help parents send their children to private schools. The program is limited to families with lower-to-middle incomes.

The program has never used all the money allocated, leaving millions unspent each year. But a spending plan approved by lawmakers 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.

It was not immediately clear Thursday how much funding Forest would provide for the voucher program.

State data shows that 12,009 recipients are receiving vouchers to attend 447 private schools this school year.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has criticized the voucher program and called in his budget proposal not to provide any new funding. Cooper’s campaign accused Forest of disregarding raising teacher pay in his plan.

“Dan Forest’s new plan is essentially a roundup of his empty rhetoric on education; it fails to address meaningful reforms to support students and pay teachers what they deserve,” Liz Doherty, a spokeswoman for Cooper’s campaign, said in a statement Thursday. “Instead, it proposes underfunding and robbing our schools to pay for private school vouchers. It’s not surprising given this is the same man who, when pressed about teacher pay, shrugged his shoulders and insisted no one is ‘forcing’ teachers to take these jobs.”

But Brian Jodice, a spokesman for Parents For Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said Forest’s plan is a bit of fresh air after the hostility that Cooper has shown toward school choice. Jodice said Forest is being forward thinking.

“If you look at how school choice is embraced in North Carolina, it should come as no surprise that he’d want to hear that, listen to and form his policy around that,” Jodice said in an interview Thursday.

In addition to expanding voucher eligibility, Forest’s platform calls for changing state law to increase funding for charter schools. Charter schools don’t get funding for building and renovating schools and also don’t receive a share of some of the money that local school districts receive.

Forest said the money should follow the child regardless of whether they’re at a traditional public school or a charter school.

The lieutenant governor, who helps choose charter schools as a member of the State Board of Education, also said he wants to create a program providing $50,000 grants to charter schools “opening in high-needs areas.”

Forest has been a vocal backer of school choice programs, which with the help of the Republican-led General Assembly, have now resulted in 20% of the state’s K-12 students attending a charter school, private school or homeschool instead of a traditional public school.

“Parents know best,” Forest said in a video on school choice. “Let the parents choose.”

The N.C. Association of Educators had unsuccessfully sued in state court to block the voucher program. Mark Jewell, the president of NCAE, accused Forest of running a campaign on privatizing and profiteering off public education.

“Obviously NCAE is adamantly opposed to vouchers,” Jewell said in an interview Thursday. “Public dollars are meant for public schools period. Siphoning millions of dollars away from a starving public school system to unaccountable schools where no one knows what’s going on behind the doors is unconscionable.”

Other elements of Forest’s plan announced Thursday include:

Provide an armed security guard for schools. Many North Carolina high schools and middle schools have police officers assigned to them but few elementary schools do.

Require students to pass a U.S. citizenship exam before they can graduate from high school.

Mandate school districts perform background checks on teachers. All school districts do checks, but few fingerprint teachers to check if they have criminal records.

Empower principals “to do what’s necessary to run their school,” including giving them “full authority to hire and fire.”

Create a new career high school diploma for students who want to attend community colleges or go straight into the workforce after graduation.

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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.