Friday, Nov. 18 will go down as an important day in our state’s recent history. That is the day when the Republican-led General Assembly and Gov. Roy Cooper came to terms on a state budget for the new biennium. It’s a state budget that propels our state one step forward in funding students rather than systems when it comes to education.
Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina has been working hard these last three years to see the policies included in the new budget come to fruition. But it is not a win just for us and all school-choice advocates across our great state—it is a win for every family in search of an option other than their locally zoned public school.
Here is what the new budget includes when it comes to school choice. Arguably the most significant step forward is the way the budget improves, strengthens, and expands the Opportunity Scholarship program, a scholarship designed to give low- and moderate-income families the chance to attend a private school that better fits the needs of their child. These scholarships have been around since 2011 and have withstood attack after attack from the education establishment.
Beginning with this 2021-2022 school year, the scholarships are better than ever. The scholarship maximum value will increase from a flat $4,200 a year to $5,900. That is benchmarked to 90% of the state’s public school per-pupil spending for a full-time student. The really exciting part is that as public education per-pupil spending increases, so will the value of the scholarship amount. This achieves basic fairness and parity.
The budget also opens the scholarship to a larger pool of families. Before, the scholarship was unavailable to families with incomes greater than approximately $73,000 a year for a family of four. Now, that upper limit increases to around $85,000 a year for the same family.
Improvements to the Opportunity Scholarship program are not the only win for families and students in the new budget. The spending plan also has plenty of good news for families of children with special needs in desperate need of alternatives to their traditional public school.
The budget combines the Children with Disabilities Grant program and Education Savings Account into one program, with $31 million in funding beginning with the 2022-2023 school year. The budget even adds extra dollars to these two programs in the current school year, with the Disabilities Grant getting a $6 million boost and the ESA program a boost of more than $9 million.
The bottom line is that this budget is precisely what the Tar Heel State needs in the year 2021 and for the future. Today’s young families no longer accept the premise that just because you live in a certain neighborhood, you must attend your assigned public school. Just as we enjoy myriad options in other areas of life, parents want choice when it comes to their child’s education.
North Carolina families deserve this budget. It is a huge step toward creating a future where all students—regardless of income or zip code—have the opportunity to experience an exceptional education.
Mike Long is president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.