News: CJ Exclusives

New Budget Could Double Opportunity Scholarships

Vouchers for low-income students survived court challenge earlier this year

Additional funding allocated in the state’s two-year budget for the North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship Program could more than double the number of students taking advantage of vouchers to attend private schools by the 2016-17 school year.

The compromise budget just agreed to by legislative leaders and Gov. Pat McCrory appropriates $6.8 million for the Opportunity Scholarship Program for 2015-16, and $14 million for the program in 2016-17. That’s in addition to $10.8 million a year that already had been earmarked for the voucher program.

“When you consider that the first year of the Opportunity Scholarship Program was only able to utilize roughly $5 million of what had been allotted due to legal challenges, it is truly significant to see that the final budget ends with over $17.6 million for 2015-16 and $24.8 million for 2016-17,” said Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.

The Opportunity Scholarship Program allows students from lower income families to receive vouchers of as much as $4,200 per year to attend private schools.

According to statistics from the N.C. State Education Assistance Authority, which administers the voucher program, 1,216 students received an opportunity scholarship during the 2014-15 school year. The state spent $4.6 million on opportunity scholarships in 2014-15.

Supporters of the program say the number is lower for 2014-15 because of the legal snarls the voucher program faced. Just days before the start of the school year in August 2014, a Superior Court judge declared the program unconstitutional and blocked the distribution of funds based on his ruling.

Some parents decided to send their children to private schools anyway, trusting that the appellate courts would allow money to be spent on vouchers until they made a final decision. That occurred later in the fall.

This school year, 2,599 students were offered scholarships, including 1,060 renewal students who received scholarships last year. Again, timing was a factor. The N.C. Supreme Court ruled in July that the voucher program passed constitutional muster.

Elizabeth McDuffie, executive director of the N.C. State Education Assistance Authority, said the additional funding could allow up to 4,300 students to attend private school on vouchers this year. There’s a waiting list, she said, and additional students applying would be placed at the end of the list.

“Some schools were willing to admit students pending additional funding,” McDuffie said. “They [parents] may be anticipating switching their children whenever the offers are made.”

The new funds would allow about 6,000 students to use vouchers for private schools in 2016-17, McDuffie said.

Eligibility for the Opportunity Scholarship Program is based on household income.

Students who qualify for the federal free and reduced-price school lunch program can get a full tuition voucher paying up to $4,200 per year, or $2,100 per semester. To qualify, the maximum household income for a family of four is $44,863. For a family of eight, it’s $75,647.

Students from households with higher incomes also may be eligible for vouchers, so long as the household income is no more than 133 percent of the federal school-lunch program level. Those students could receive vouchers equaling 90 percent of the tuition, also with an annual voucher limit of $4,200.

At the 90 percent level, the maximum household income for a family of four is $59,667. For a family of eight, it’s $100,610.

The General Assembly approved the Opportunity Scholarship Program in 2013. Subsequently, a number of organizations and individuals, including the N.C. Association of Educators and the N.C. School Boards Association, filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the program.

The Institute for Justice, based in Arlington, Va., represented parents of prospective voucher recipients in the case. The Institute for Justice has fought for school choice in a number of states.

After Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood ruled the program unconstitutional, the case was appealed to the N.C. Court of Appeals. However, the N.C. Supreme Court went ahead and took the case, bypassing the N.C. Court of Appeals.

Barry Smith (@Barry_Smith) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.