School choice would continue its growth trajectory in North Carolina under a budget passed by the House April 6 in a bipartisan vote of 78 to 38.
Nine Democrats joined Republicans in supporting the spending plan for the new biennium, which expands school choice by growing private-school choice programs and charter schools.
The budget makes three changes to the Opportunity Scholarship Program, a means-tested scholarship designed to allow low- and moderate-income families to attend the private school of their choice.
First, it would eliminate the requirement that students in grades third through eighth attend public school for at least a year prior to receiving the scholarship. Under the current structure, the requirement is only waived for students in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade.
Second, beginning with the 2024-2025 fiscal year, the budget allocates an additional $392 million to the program’s reserve fund over a seven year period. Third, the budget removes a requirement that private schools participating in Opportunity Scholarships submit student test data to the state government each year.
“We applaud leadership in the North Carolina House of Representatives for passing a budget that seeks to expand parental school choice,” said Mike Long, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. “While we believe more can be done to fund students over systems, we are hopeful that through the budget process, we will see a state budget that expands access to educational options like North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program and funding equity for our state’s public charter schools.”
Gov. Roy Cooper had proposed a budget that would eventually phase out Opportunity Scholarships. On April 5, Rep. Lindsey Prather, D-Buncombe, offered an amendment to the budget on the House floor that would have halted increases in funding for the program and restored the reporting requirement for test data.
“The state has a constitutional obligation to ensure every student has access to a sound basic education. Unfortunately, the Opportunity Scholarship Program provides public funding to unaccountable non-public institutions for the education of our students,” said Prather.
The amendment failed 69-44, with two Democrats — Reps. Cecil Brockman, D-Guilford, and Garland Pierce, D-Scotland — joining Republicans in voting it down.
The budget also removes the State Board of Education’s oversight to authorize or shutter charter schools, shifting this responsibility to the Charter Schools Advisory Board.
Republican lawmakers have proposed two measures — Senate Bill 406 and House Bill 420 — that would expand school choice to an even greater degree. S.B. 406 would grow eligibility for Opportunity Scholarships to even higher earning households, while H.B. 420 would phase out Opportunity Scholarships and ultimately replace them with Education Savings Accounts, available to parents regardless of income level.
The Senate is likely to releases its budget in May.