News: CJ Exclusives

Opportunity Scholarships Get Boost In Senate Budget

Proposal also would fund 2,000 extra students per year if budget measure becomes law

North Carolina’s still-young Opportunity Scholarship Program would get a major boost if a provision in the proposed Senate budget becomes law.

The Opportunity Scholarship Program, enacted in 2013, provides a child from a low-income family a tax-funded voucher of up to $4,200 per school year to use toward private-school tuition.

The budget sets aside $34.8 million in a reserve account for the 2016-17 school year to help children from lower income families eligible to use the vouchers get off a waiting list and into a private school. It also allows the state to increase awards incrementally by 2,000 students per year — with a corresponding $10 million increase in spending each year — over the next 10 years.

By the 2027-28 school year, up to $144.8 million could be going to pay for scholarship grants for about 36,000 students, said Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.

“There’s no denying that there’s a real demand for this program,” Allison said. “Since the beginning of the program, we’ve had a total of 22,323 applications submitted to date.”

According to the N.C. State Education Assistance Authority’s website, 3,908 grants were awarded this school year, with nearly $12.9 million in scholarships granted. The NCSEAA administers the Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Allison noted that the program has been popular even though there was a “legal cloud” hanging over it. A number of groups and individuals, including the N.C. Association of Educators and the N.C. School Boards Association, filed lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the program, delaying its implementation.

The plaintiffs won at the Superior Court level. However, in the summer of 2015, the N.C. Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision and ruled the program passed constitutional muster.

Leanne Winner, director of government relations for the N.C. School Boards Association, said she thought it was unwise for lawmakers to make such a significant change in the program’s current structure and put in plans an automatic growth mechanism.

“We also think that there needs to be a serious conversation about looking at accountability for not only parents but for the public – the taxpayers who are paying for this — to be able to see if these schools are actually educating the students or not,” Winner said.

Winner said the provision could end up overfunding a program if the demand isn’t there.

Allison said he has no doubt that the demand will exist.

“I think the additional 2,000 students [per year] is reasonable,” Allison said.

Rep. Skip Stam, R-Wake, the primary driver behind the Opportunity Scholarship Program, noted that almost 2,000 students are on the waiting list for the next school year.

Allison expects that number to increase as the current school year winds down.

“Generally, around the spring time, families are starting to lock in about what they want to do in the fall,” Allison said.

Stam also said the voucher program alleviates fiscal pressures on the public schools. Stam noted that the state will need to increase the public school budget by $46 million next year to fund enrollment growth. “If we hadn’t had the opportunity scholarships this year, that number would likely been about $60 million,” Stam said.

The boost in voucher funding is part of the $22.2 billion General Fund budget that is scheduled for a floor vote in the Senate on Thursday.