News: Quick Takes

Like Senate, House budget boosts Opportunity Scholarship funding, but with changes

Increasing funding in the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program is just one indicator of a growing movement for school choice.

The Republican-controlled General Assembly plans to increase funding for the Opportunity Scholarship Grant Fund Reserve by $10 million every year for the next decade. The state will allocate $44.8 million for fiscal 2017-18, $54.8 million for 2018-19, $64.8 for 2019-20, and so forth until 2027-28.

The Opportunity Scholarship Program provides up to $4,200 to each eligible student to help cover the cost of attending a participating nonpublic school. As of the 2016-17 school year, 5,611 students have received Opportunity Scholarships, an increase from 3,682 recipients the previous school year.

“By increasing Opportunity Scholarship funds by $10 million next year, Republican lawmakers are following through on a promise they made to North Carolina families in 2016,” says Terry Stoops, director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation. “Their 10-year commitment to the program will ensure that thousands of low-income children have the same kinds of educational options that their wealthier peers now enjoy.”

The  Senate and House Budget proposals look to expand the program, but the House plan also includes a requirement for recipients to take the Iowa Test of Basic Skills to measure their academic progress under the program. Further, the House proposes to allocate $587,307 in fiscal 2017-18 and $314,500 in fiscal 2018-19 to contract an independent research organization to evaluate any academic progress or academic decline of students who get the scholarship.

The House budget plan proposes the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority — which oversees the Opportunity Scholarship and Disabilities Grant programs — may use up to $1.8 million in one-time funds in the fiscal year starting July 1 to buy software to support the administration of these programs. The Senate, too, has a provision to buy software but does not specify the amount of funding.

“As popularity and expanded access to Opportunity Scholarships continues to increase demand, so too should legislative support for the program,” Stoops said.

The Disabilities Grant program provides vouchers of up to $8,000 a year for students with disabilities to attend nonpublic schools, but neither budget proposal increases funding for this specific program.