All 72,000 applicants for Opportunity Scholarships this year are one step closer to securing awards after the North Carolina Senate passed a funding boost for the program on Thursday.

The proposed committee substitute (PCS) for House Bill 828 passed by a party line 28-15 vote after more than an hour of contentious debate. Yesterday, the measure cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee in a similarly feisty meeting. The measure’s next stop is the North Carolina House.

The new PCS includes $248 million in nonrecurring funding for Opportunity Scholarships for the upcoming school year, plus $215.5 million in recurring support for the 2025-2026 school year. That funding increase will clear the waitlist for the scholarships, currently estimated at 54,800 applicants.

Opportunity Scholarships are the state’s voucher program that enable families to choose a private school education for their children. Each scholarship is valued at between $7,468 and $3,360 each year spread across four income tier levels ranging from $57,720 for a family of four in the first tier to more than $259,740 a year in the fourth tier. A record-breaking 72,000 applications were received for the scholarships in February.

“This bill is a slap in the face to every taxpayer in the state,” said Sen. Michael Garrett, D-Guilford, who recently sent a letter to at least 16 private schools threatening a misdemeanor charge if they didn’t comply with an information request.

The debate on the Senate floor reached its peak when Sen. Natasha Marcus, D-Mecklenburg, compared funding Opportunity Scholarships for higher income families to devoting taxpayer dollars to buying those same kids a Porsche.

“This is welfare for the wealthy,” Marcus opined. “This is not about helping middle class or low-income families choose the school that they want their kids to go to. A good analogy occurs to me is if you went up to a middle-income family driving their middle-income sedan on their way to work and you said to them, ‘Hold on a minute. The millionaires across town, they want to buy their son a Porsche. He just got his license and that’s the car of their choice. And it’s an expensive car. So, we’re gonna need you to chip in.’ That’s what this bill is doing, and it’s wrong.”

Republicans countered that higher income households pay a disproportionate share of state income and local property taxes that fund the public school system. Meanwhile, Opportunity Scholarships only provide a fraction of those funds back to taxpayers.

“I was thinking about Sen. Marcus’ analogy with buying a car — that the taxpayer would be asking other people to buy their child a car,” said Sen. Amy Galey, R-Alamance. “No. That taxpayer has already bought a car for everybody else in the neighborhood. They’re just looking to provide for their own family’s needs in a small way.”

“We don’t have a lot of Ferraris in Johnston County,” added Sen. Benton Sawrey, R-Johnson. “In fact, I don’t think we have any Ferraris in Johnson County. If we do, they would be markedly out of place. What we do have are hard-working, 30-year-old families that are getting squeezed by high inflation, high interest rates, high housing costs, high costs of just a regular old Ford car to get to and from school … I take issue with the concept that this is welfare for the wealthy. It’s not.”

Republicans also asked how a universally available voucher for K-12 education is any different than other government-funded vouchers, like for pre-school education.

“What’s the difference between the daycare subsidies, the stabilization grants, and the Opportunity Scholarships? It seems like to me that they’re very, very similar,” said Galey. “Both are putting taxpayer funds into education. One is for pre-school, obviously, and the other is for K-12, so that is a difference, I will give you that. But it seems like most of the objections that we’ve heard tied to Opportunity Scholarships could also be raised against the stabilization grants. There’s accountability issues. There’s the potential for fraud. The use of curriculum. Why would you support the stabilization grants but not the Opportunity Scholarships?”

In addition to funding the Opportunity Scholarship waitlist, the bill includes $24.7 million in recurring funds to clear the waitlist for the Education Savings Account program, or ESA+. There are an estimated 2,015 applicants on that waitlist.