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Carolina Journal News Reports

School Choice Takes Center Stage in House Budget

State board chairman Cobey praises opportunity scholarship provision

Jun. 11th, 2013
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RALEIGH — Money to provide opportunity scholarships — or school vouchers — to children from lower income families has made it into the House budget proposal. And it got the endorsement of the chairman of the State Board of Education.

“I’m for it personally, because I don’t believe one size fits all in education,” said Bill Cobey, the state board chairman.

Cobey met with a group of journalists in downtown Raleigh Monday as a part of the UNC Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication’s Program on Public Life’s newsmaker series.

“I had school choice; my grandkids had school choice,” Cobey said. “But if you’re in a particular zip code in an urban area, you don’t have a choice.”

The opportunity scholarships provision is one of several education-related measures in the proposed state House budget that will be taken up by that chamber this week. Other portions of the budget deal with charter schools, teacher compensation, college tuition, and community college enrollment.

Cobey responded to a question about the provision in the proposed House budget that would provide private-school scholarships of up to $4,200 a year for students residing in households with an income level that qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

The House budget provides $10 million in the 2013-14 year for vouchers and $40 million in the 2014-15 year.

Because of an anticipated reduction in enrollment resulting from the vouchers, the public school appropriation would be reduced by $12.1 million in 2013-14 and $35.9 million in 2014-15.

Rep. Linda Johnson, R-Cabarrus, who co-chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said there would be a net savings to the state treasury in some school districts for children who leave the public schools and use the vouchers to attend a private school.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson had some qualms with the voucher plan, particularly in terms of accountability.

“I believe that when taxpayer dollars are spent, that there should be accountability,” Atkinson said.

Atkinson said she believed that private schools accepting vouchers should be required to have the same A to F grading scale required of public schools — and should publish their grades.

She also said schools participating in the voucher program should be required to give the same battery of end-of-course and end-of-grade tests that are required of public schools.

“If end-of-grade or end-of-course tests are good enough for our public school students, then they should be good enough for our students who attend private schools,” Atkinson said.

Cobey said that parents choosing to leave their district schools are seeking better options for their children.

“They’re very passionate about [education],” Cobey said. “One thing that’s universal is that parents love their kids and want the best for their kids.”

The appropriations for private school vouchers are part of the $20.6 billion General Fund budget that House GOP leaders unveiled earlier this week. It is expected to be on the House floor by the end of the week.

At a Monday press conference, House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said House and Senate leaders would be negotiating both budget and tax reform plans over the next couple of weeks.

“I think they’ll run concurrently,” Tillis said.

The House gave final approval to its tax reform bill Monday night by a 75-37 vote. It will now go to the Senate, where other tax reform measures have been proposed.

Tillis said that the tax reform issue would need to be resolved before the final budget is in place. That’s primarily so that lawmakers will be able to know how much money they’ll have to spend in the budget.

“You’ll see the tax plan most likely conferenced out and negotiated before the final decision on the budget,” Tillis said. “But I do believe they’ll be very close.”

The House budget includes $14.6 million to help implement the Excellent Public Schools Act enacted last year.

The plan includes a salary bump for K-12 teachers who get advanced degrees, a provision left out of the Senate budget.

It provides up to $464,100 for each of the next two years to help the nonprofit Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina Inc. develop charter schools in rural counties.

The budget also increases out-of-state tuition at UNC campuses between 6 percent and 12.3 percent.

And it sets up an N.C. Guaranteed Admissions Program. NC GAP would allow students accepted at one of the UNC campuses whose “academic credentials are not as competitive as other students admitted to the institution” to take two years of classes at a community college. A student completing community college coursework would be guaranteed admission at the UNC school.

Lawmakers hope to save state money, provide students with more counseling, and help prevent students from amassing debt.

Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, said the NC GAP program was aimed at “trying to get the best bang for our buck,” adding that students at the lower end of the admission scale would have the choice of enrolling in community college or attending a UNC campus.

Barry Smith (@Barry_Smith) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.