Lawmakers have introduced a bill in the North Carolina House that would create a universal Education Savings Account to allow parents to pay directly for approved non-public educational expenses for their children.

House Bill 420, Expand and Consolidate K-12 Scholarships, would significantly expand the school choice landscape in the Tar Heel State. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Donnie Loftis, R-Gaston, would eventually phase out and replace the Opportunity Scholarship Program with an ESA valued at 100% of the state’s per pupil allotment for public school students. For 2022, that amount was $7,426.

The ESA accounts could only be used for approved educational expenses, such as private school tuition, textbooks, tutoring services, educational therapies, and technological devices.

“HB 420 lays out a bold program. But a bold program is needed to empower parents to direct how and where their children are educated,” said Dr. Robert Luebke, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation.

The new ESA would not be income-based, meaning any family in North Carolina could take advantage of it. The program would be phased in over three years, beginning with the 2024-2025 school year in which students would be eligible for 33% of the per pupil allotment. That increases to 66% for the 2025-2026 school year until reaching 100% for the 2026-2027 school year. Homeschool students would be eligible for 28% of the per pupil allotment each year.

“There is a movement that has been building in North Carolina — parents, families, and students are demanding that our state legislature recognizes the importance of the expansion of parental school choice,” said Mike Long, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. “I am grateful for Rep. Loftis of the North Carolina General Assembly for introducing HB 420, and his colleagues who have quickly signed-on to support the bill. By doing so, our state takes another step towards funding North Carolina students, not systems. With demand continuing to rise from parents and families who want to ensure their children are getting the best education, supply must increase as well.”

Five states — Arizona, Iowa, Utah, Arkansas, and West Virginia — have approved similar universal ESAs, and a number of other states are considering them.

North Carolina currently has two school choice programs — the Opportunity Scholarship Program and the ESA+ program. Opportunity Scholarships are designed to allow low- and moderate-income families to attend private schools, while ESA+ is only available for students with specific special needs.

In the last two years, lawmakers have OK’ed major expansions of the Opportunity Scholarship Program. They moved the value of each scholarship from $4,200 to nearly $6,500 a year and expanded the upper income eligibility for a family of four from $64,465 in the 2020-2021 school year to $111,000 for the 2023-2024 school year.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s proposed budget for the new biennium would phase out the Opportunity Scholarship Program over a number of years.

“We encourage Rep. Loftis’ colleagues in both chambers to support parental school choice and to work across the aisle to expand educational opportunities for students in our state. Let’s see more like HB 420 this legislative session and let’s work to fund students and not systems through bills like this and the state budget this year,” Long added.