RALEIGH — A bill that would authorize tax dollars to be used for private school vouchers cleared its first hurdle Tuesday by passing the House Education Committee in a 27-21 vote.
It now moves to the House Appropriations Committee.
House Bill 944, the Opportunity Scholarship Act, would provide vouchers up to $4,200 to students attending nonpublic schools, with $50 million shifted from the state’s education budget to the program over the next two years. Fifty percent of the grants always would go to students receiving free and reduced lunches.
The State Education Assistance Authority would administer the opportunity scholarships, which also would be available to children in foster care and newly adopted children.
The measure touched off a firestorm among committee Democrats opposed to school competition. Supporters of the measure said it offered students an opportunity to leave public schools that were not a good fit for them.
“This money will diminish what we can do. … And it ultimately will dismantle public schools, and that’s really the underlying motive here,” Rep. Alma Adams, D-Guilford, said during Education Committee debate.
“This is a very bad bill. Even if parents have this opportunity that we’re talking about, they can make that choice, if they don’t have the dollars in their pocket to put with that [grant] to make the difference, that child will not have an opportunity. We need to be honest and up front about that,” Adams said.
Rep. Rob Bryan, R-Mecklenburg, a bill sponsor, dismissed that notion.
“When you look at the Florida program which we’re very similarly modeled after, not only is it not the folks at the high-income level exercising on it, it tends to be the poorest of the poor exercising,” Bryan said.
The average family income of voucher recipients in Florida is $24,000 a year. The scholarship grant there ranges from $4,100 to $4,300, Bryan said, while average tuition at private schools where those voucher recipients attend is about $5,600.
Yet even as it has grown from about 10,000 students to about 60,000 this year, the Florida program “has not decimated public education,” Bryan said.
“Many of these [private] schools are missionally focused and they desire to have kids to be able to exercise these scholarships to attend these schools,” Bryan said.
“What you often see is parents can do volunteer hours or do other things to make up the difference [in tuition], or schools just accept these as scholarships in full to get the students there,” Bryan said. For many parents whose children have faltered in traditional public schools, the voucher program “is exactly what they need.”
Rep. Charles Graham, D-Robeson, opposed the bill, warning of “the damage and, I think, the harm” it will cause to public schools. “It takes away from rural counties … from the good things that are happening in my county” and in public education in general, he said.
He asked Bryan what qualifications private school teachers must have. “These private schools are not held to the same standards,” Graham said.
Bryan said private schools establish their own guidelines, and teaching standards may even be higher, an answer that displeased Graham.
Adams criticized the bill for not including background checks on private school personnel and said private schools often exclude difficult students.
“Public schools are charged with educating all children, and we’re 48th in public school funding right now,” Adams said.
Rep. Jeff Collins, R-Nash, countered the complaint about cherry picking students by recalling his 12 years teaching at a church-affiliated, private Christian school and his experience in helping to found a nondenominational Christian school in Rocky Mount.
“I’m a little bit discombobulated” about that contention, Collins said. The Christian schools where he worked frequently accepted students who “were kicked out of public schools for behavior problems” and had no other options, he said.
The educational vouchers “certainly could work in my county of Nash,” he said.
“Opponents of House Bill 944 opted for the ‘kitchen sink’ approach to the debate. In the end, however, their wildly creative fear mongering did little to sway the opinion of the majority of the committee,” said Terry Stoops, director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation.
“Despite the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that vouchers are constitutional, opponents of House Bill 944 insisted that the legislation violated the separation of church and state,” Stoops said. “This was one of many instances of opponents playing fast and loose with the facts in an attempt to sway undecided Republicans to their camp.”
While he believes the bill “still has a long way to go,” Stoops said the outcome of the Education Committee vote “means that the chances of passage increased dramatically. Today’s committee vote signals to the Republican majorities in the House and Senate that there is adequate support for the voucher bill.”
Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, a school choice advocacy organization, hailed the committee approval of the bill.
“This measure is not a ‘voucher scheme’ with no accountability, nor is it taking money from traditional public schools, nor will these funds disappear into a ‘black hole,’” Allison said.
“The Opportunity Scholarship Act is a chance for hundreds of thousands of low-income children in North Carolina who struggle to read, write and solve math problems at grade level to receive the quality education they need through an accountable and transparent program,” he said.
“This is responsible legislation with a number of safeguards, including a financial audit, annual national standardized testing for scholarship students, and reporting requirements to the legislature for participating private schools,” Allison said.
Dan E. Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.