Gov. Roy Cooper’s budget proposal would seize millions from school choices programs and divert it to public schools.

Cooper’s plan could eventually cripple the programs while at the same time propping up failing public schools and punishing low-income families, lawmakers and education policy experts say. 

Cooper announced a $25 billion proposed budget during an Aug. 26 news conference — weeks after the fiscal year began July 1. The plan allocates hundreds of millions to the public school system. It includes millions in one-time bonuses for teachers, principals, and non-certified school support staff, including janitors and cafeteria workers. It adds money to several education and teacher support programs.

The governor proposes cutting $85 million from the Opportunity Scholarship Program to help pay for the education items. 

“Gutting the Opportunity Scholarship Program would destroy a critical lifeline for low-income parents who find that their assigned district school does not meet the needs of their children,” Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation wrote in a blog post.

The Opportunity Scholarship Program gives low-income families up to $4,200 to help cover private school costs. More than 12,000 children use the program to attend the school of their choice. 

Cooper, a long-time critic of the private school vouchers, has repeatedly recommended zeroing out the program in past budget proposals. 

Cooper’s daughter attended private school, but his budget would prevent children of lesser means from having the same opportunity, Stoops wrote.

Republican lawmakers, too, were quick to condemn the proposal.

“It strips low-income children, many of whom are black, from the chance to choose the education that best suits their needs,” said Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga. “Under the governor’s ‘equity’ plan, only the wealthy can attend private school.”

It’s unlikely Republicans will sign onto Cooper’s plan to dismantle the Opportunity Scholarship program in favor of bolstering teacher support programs and bonuses. 

But that doesn’t mean the program is safe. 

The N.C. Association of Educators, a left-leaning teacher organization, shares Cooper’s disdain of the Opportunity Scholarship Program.

The NCAE filed a lawsuit July 27 challenging the constitutionality of the program. A group of parents, backed by the NCAE and including two NCAE officers, argued the program was unconstitutional because it provided taxpayer dollars to private schools that discriminate against religion and sexual orientation. 

While Cooper’s budget proposal allows current Opportunity Scholarship families to stay in the program, the governor might be banking on the courts to completely dismantle it, Stoops wrote. 

If successful, thousands of children would have to return to schools that weren’t meeting their needs. 

Some families are fighting back. 

Three N.C. families joined the Institute for Justice in intervening in the NCAE’s lawsuit. 

Janet Nunn uses the private school vouchers for her granddaughter, Nariah, who was born prematurely. 

Nariah struggled in public school. School officials planned to promote Nariah to the second grade despite Nunn’s objection that she wasn’t ready. Nunn decided to use the Opportunity Scholarship program to send her granddaughter to Victory Christian School. 

“Now, as a result of the Opportunity Scholarships program, Nariah is a rising sixth grader and a B average student. She is confident in herself,” Nunn said in a Carolina Journal video.

Without the Opportunity Scholarship, none of this would’ve been possible, said Nunn, tears in her eyes.

“She would not have flourished as she has.”