(The Center Square) – North Carolina lawmakers have filed a second bill this session aimed at expanding the state's private school voucher program for low-income students.
A group of Senate Republicans filed Senate Bill 671 on Wednesday. It would increase the income eligibility threshold and award amount for the Opportunity Scholarship program.
"Last year, public schools in North Carolina were shut down because of the pandemic, leaving many parents to scramble to find alternatives that would meet their child's needs," said Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, a co-sponsor of the bill.
The Opportunity Scholarship Program provides state-funded tuition assistance up to $4,200 a year for private education. SB 67 would increase the scholarship award amount to about $6,500 a year. It also increases the income limit from 150% of the federal reduced-price lunch level to 175%.
More than 6,000 new applications have been submitted for opportunity scholarships for the 2021-22 school year, according to Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.
"It's clear that after a year of being forced into 'virtual learning' working-class families want a bigger say in their child's education and opportunity scholarships can give them back their voice," Lee said.
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 favor creating education savings accounts, and 66% favored the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Gov. Roy Cooper, however, has proposed cuts to the Opportunity Scholarship Program over the next two fiscal years.
Private school voucher critics believe the programs redirect money from public schools and uses public money to push religious agendas. A group of parents has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the North Carolina's Opportunity Scholarship Program.
SB 67 boosts outreach and marketing for scholarships. 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. The program awards up to $17,000 a school year for students with disabilities.
"As we all know, students across North Carolina have experienced extreme learning loss over the past year," bill so-sponsor Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, said. "Instead of giving low- and middle-income families a choice, Gov. Cooper is withholding access to educational opportunities, ensuring that private education is only accessible to the wealthy."
House Republicans also filed a bill meant to expand the Opportunity Scholarship Program. House Bill 32 eliminates the current funding cap and bases the awards on a percentage of the average state per-pupil allocation. It was referred to the Committee On Rules, Calendar, and Operations of the House on April 1.