Demand for school choice in North Carolina is so high that applicants crashed the website when they tried to apply for Opportunity Scholarships.

But Gov. Roy Cooper is choosing to rob low-income children and families in the Tar Heel State of their opportunity to choose the type of schooling that fits their unique needs.

He indicated this, in so many words, when he called the Opportunity Scholarship Program — the state’s school choice vehicle, which prioritizes children from low-income families — a “government handout for millionaires.” The state Senate recently approved nearly $500 million in additional funding, and the final short-session budget will likely include this figure, intended to clear the waitlist.

The Opportunity Scholarship Program, launched in 2013 by the legislature, grants financial awards to students on a sliding scale based on a family’s income and household size that can be used to pay tuition and fees at a private school of their choice. The program prioritizes low-income, working-class families with higher awards — this is built into the system and clearly explained on the program’s website. This is one reason why North Carolina’s school choice program is so innovative and impactful: It puts the kids who need the most help at the front of the line.

And the program is in high demand. It has grown exponentially since its inception more than 10 years ago and now has a waiting list of nearly 55,000 students. Demand is increasing. Remember the website crashing? That demand is why the state Senate recently approved spending an additional $463.5 million over the next two years to clear out the waiting list and create more opportunities for students whose lives could be changed for the better.

This price tag is reasonable and feasible when compared to the rest of the state’s budget. Consider this: The Opportunity Scholarship Program represents only a small portion of the overall education budget — about 3% of the total and under 4.5% of the overall K-12 budget. This small investment yields significant benefits by giving families the freedom to choose the best educational setting for their children, fostering a more competitive and dynamic educational landscape that benefits all students.

Most importantly, consider the impact that this program could have on North Carolina’s students. Studies have shown that being able to choose where a child goes to school results in improved academic performance. Public schools may work well for some students, but others have unique learning needs and could benefit from more one-on-one time, smaller class sizes, or specific therapies and academic assistance that may not be available (or funded or prioritized) in every public school. Expanding school choice funding in North Carolina will continue to empower families to make the best decision for their children, one at a time, at their own individual level, instead of forcing them to fit into a one-size-fits-all education system that may or may not be the best situation for their academic success.

If Cooper could set down his political agenda and be honest about the Opportunity Scholarship Program, he may be singing a different and more realistic tune.

The fact is that the scholarship program distributes award dollars based, first and foremost, on need. Awards range between $3,000 and $7,000, determined by household income and household size, and students with the greatest demonstrated need receive the largest awards.

The state’s own household income guidelines clearly show that the families receiving these awards are hardly within the ballpark of Cooper’s “millionaire” rhetoric. Cooper’s comment and clear unwillingness to recognize the power of this program are tone-deaf and insulting to North Carolina families.

It’s also a hypocritical argument from Cooper, considering his own children attended or currently attend expensive private schools. Shouldn’t other North Carolina kids get the same opportunity for a great education as his?

By dedicating more funding to the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the General Assembly will send a clear message — yes, North Carolina kids should indeed have the opportunity for a great education, regardless of the financial barriers their families face.