NC House Republicans owe both an apology and immediate action to private-school leaders, school-choice advocacy groups, and families. By failing to clear the Opportunity Scholarship waitlist in the short session, they failed to meet their commitment to “universal school choice.”

What happened?

As founder of a small private school with “affordable access” as one of our core values, I was thrilled to see the expansion of what lawmakers called “universal school choice” in last year’s budget. With Speaker Tim Moore as a primary sponsor, newly converted Republican Rep. Tricia Cotham as the face of the legislation, and every single House Republican signed on as sponsor, there was much celebration and many victory laps taken.

Unfortunately, a closer look at the budget shows a critical mistake. While the program expansion was set to take effect in the 2024-25 school year, the corresponding funding increase was delayed until 2025-26. The combination of their mistake and an overwhelming increase in demand earlier this year resulted in the funding problem we face today.

As the short session began, school-choice advocates, private-school leaders like me, and our respective school families asked Republican leaders to take immediate action to honor their commitment and fully fund the scholarship. To their credit, Senate Republicans did just that by passing House Bill 823 in the first full week of session and sending it to the House.

Unfortunately, House Republicans, all sponsors of the original expansion, decided they did not want to pass a standalone bill but instead rolled it into a more comprehensive budget addendum. As reported by David Bass of the Carolina Journal, Senate leaders thought the House budget spent too much, which led to a budget impasse, and the House adjourned the short session without taking any action. Keep in mind, both sides agreed the scholarship should be fully funded (as they committed in last year’s budget), but the House refused to do so without additional funding for public schools (which was new and not committed).

House Republican’s failure to meet their commitment of “universal school choice” has left a $400 million funding gap in the program, almost 55,000 students either trapped in failing public schools or forced to pay full tuition and put financial strain on private schools like ours due to previously enrolled students backing out. Worst of all, they have eroded the trust of the people. They made a promise to the families of North Carolina and failed to keep it.

For context, every qualifying student from our school who applied for the scholarship in the prior four years of our existence received it. But this year, a whopping 85% were denied, of which two-thirds were Tier 2.

What should have happened?

At a minimum, the General Assembly should have aligned the increase in funding with the start of the expansion in last year’s budget. Assuming demand was the same, thousands more students would have been funded, leaving a much smaller gap to close.

Since that did not happen, the House should have taken up HB 823 after it was passed by the Senate early in the short session and concurred. After a 10-day wait and certain veto by Gov. Roy Cooper, lawmakers could have overridden the veto and made the funding law by the end of May. This would have fulfilled their commitment and allowed school leaders and families to move forward with confidence in their financial decisions.

Since that did not happen either, the primary sponsors aside from Speaker Moore (Rep. Cotham, Rep. Willis, Rep. Loftis) should have partnered with school-choice advocacy groups to hold a press conference publicly calling on the House to pass HB 823 and clear the waitlist before adjourning the session.

Instead, no one did anything publicly, and Speaker Moore closed the session by saying, “We feel like it needs to be done in a comprehensive manner, for doing more with the surplus to help the traditional public schools. I think it’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of when.”

Well Mr. Speaker, that does absolutely nothing for the schools and families you promised universal school choice to last year. And since he used the word “we,” I can only assume the speaker is speaking for all House Republican members.

Frustration without representation

Don’t you love calling a representative’s office only to hear there’s nothing they can do because leadership won’t allow it? Like many others across the state on both sides of the aisle, I’m tired of chamber leaders serving as gatekeepers for what does and does not get done.

Apparently, our representatives have to get permission to represent us, and every vote has to be a predetermined win before being taken. And if they step out of line, they may be punished with poor office space, removal of committee assignments, loss of funding for local projects, having none of their bills heard, being primaried in the next election, and who knows what else.

We want our representatives to represent the people who elected them, not party leadership. We want our representatives to show they have a will of their own and do what’s right, regardless of the political consequences. I’m not naïve enough to believe these power dynamics will change. I just want lawmakers to know they failed us in a major way, and they need to make it right.