North Carolina Republicans Seek Hundreds Of Millions Of Dollars More For School Vouchers

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Addressing a sharp increase in private-school grant applications, North Carolina Republicans advanced legislation on Wednesday to spend hundreds of millions of dollars now to eliminate a large waiting list this fall for Opportunity Scholarships and to permanently meet expected higher demand.

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted for legislation that would spend another $248 million in the coming year to eliminate a waiting list of 54,900 applicants who otherwise would receive money to attend private or religious K-12 schools.

Republicans from both chambers said before the legislative session began last week that finding a way to eliminate the wait list was a top priority. They said that parents counted on the program to help their children succeed if an alternative to public schools was best for them.

“The urgency of all this is really because these families have to make decisions,” said Sen. Michael Lee, a New Hanover County Republican and longtime school choice advocate, told committee members.

GOP lawmakers dramatically expanded the program last year by doing away with income eligibility caps that had limited the scholarships, sometimes known as vouchers, to low-income and more recently some middle-income families. Now any family can qualify, even the wealthiest income earners among those on the wait list.

The GOP-dominated legislature, which considers the program initially approved a decade ago one of its milestone policies, already has approved increasing state funds annually for it through the early 2030s for the expansion. For the coming year's scholarships, the state allocated $293.5 million.

But it wasn’t enough. More than 32,500 students received scholarships this school year. But the end of both income limits and another key qualification resulted in a six-fold increase of 72,000 new applicants. That doesn’t include current recipients who were first in line to accept scholarships for the 2024-2025 school year.

Without additional funds, the agency that administers the program announced last month that families who make above a certain amount — like families of four making over $115,440 annually — wouldn’t receive any awards. And only some families in a lower income tier — like families of four making above $57,720 — would receive an award.

The proposal also would increase scheduled spending allocated for the 2025-2026 school year for the program of $384.5 million by another $215.5 million. Similar adjustments would be permanent moving forward.

Senate Democrats on Wednesday criticized the proposed spending while they say public schools — which still educate most of the state’s children — could use money to boost teacher salaries further, hire more school nurses and social workers and comply with longstanding education spending litigation.

“Why is this your urgent priority to provide welfare for the wealthiest families who are in most cases already affording to send their children to their private school ... when we have so many other unmet needs, particularly related to education?” Sen. Natasha Marcus, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, asked Lee.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper released a proposed state budget last week that would block further expansion of the program until he says public schools are fully funded.

Republicans came to Lee's defense, saying middle-class families with two parents who work, such as in government fields, deserve the assistance.

“These are hardworking American families who are desperate for a ... better fit for their child versus what they see in their school attendance zone,” said Sen. Amy Galey, an Alamance County Republican.

Scholarships for the coming year would range from up to $7,468 for the tier of the lowest-income families to $3,360 for families in the highest income level.

The legislation also would spend $24.7 million more annually to do away with a waiting list of about 2,000 students for Education Student Accounts, which provides public funds for students with disabilities to attend private schools or receive services. The state expects additional tax collections through mid-2025 to help pay for the measure.

The bill, now set for a Thursday floor vote in the Senate, also must receive full House approval for it go to Cooper’s desk. Republicans hold narrow veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate that would override any Cooper veto on the vouchers issue.

The pro-school choice Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina urged quick action. “Senate leaders once again empowered parents to use their educational dollars as they best see fit,” group President Mike Long in a statement.