(The Center Square) – A bill that would expand access to and increase state funding for private school scholarship programs was approved Tuesday by the North Carolina Senate.
Senate Bill 671 increases state-funded tuition assistance from the Opportunity Scholarship Program and expands access to scholarship programs for children with disabilities.
"Every child deserves the chance to go to a school that meets their needs, no matter their zip code, no matter their family's financial means," said Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, one of the bill's sponsors. "Every parent deserves to have a say in their child's education, and these scholarships give parents a voice."
SB 671 increases the award amount for the opportunity scholarships from $4,200 a year to about $6,500 a year. It also increases the eligibility income threshold for the program from 150% of the federal reduced-price lunch level to 175%.
The bill allows gifted 4-year-olds to become eligible for opportunity scholarships. Current law extends the scholarship as far back as kindergarten or first grade. It also opens the program to students who already switched from a traditional public school to a private school because of the pandemic.
Parents and a students urged lawmakers last week to approve the expansion. A Civitas poll released in January showed a majority of North Carolinians supported school choice. According to the results, 72% of North Carolinians surveyed said they favored creating education savings accounts, and 66% favored the Opportunity Scholarship Program.
Gov. Roy Cooper, however, has proposed cuts to the program over the next two fiscal years. According to Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, more than 6,000 new applications have been submitted for opportunity scholarships for the 2021-22 school year.
The bill also merges the Special Education Scholarships for Students with Disabilities and Personal Education Savings Accounts into the Personal Education Student Accounts for Children with Disabilities, streamlining the application process for parents.
"What we've done is combine the two programs so that you have a program that parents can apply to one time for those who qualify, and you can qualify for the disability grant, which is about $9,000," Lee said. "Then if you have another level of disability, you can also apply for $8,000, that will get to $17,000 for a child with certain types of disabilities."
Sen. Natasha Marcus, D-Mecklenburg, voted against the bill Tuesday. She said private schools lack accountability and discriminate against children based on disabilities, gender identity, religion and sexual orientation. A group of parents and teachers have sued the state challenging the constitutionality of the program.
"It's nice that these vouchers are available to some families, but they're not available to all families because of the discriminatory nature of it," Marcus said. "And that's wrong. Furthermore, we do not adequately fund public education in this state and haven't for many years. Unless and until we get that right, we shouldn't even be talking about or thinking about siphoning off public funds to go to these unaccountable private schools."
The Senate approved SB 671, 29-20, on Tuesday. It now heads to the House for consideration.