Bills to expand the Opportunity Scholarship Program in North Carolina are now on the move in both chambers of the General Assembly, after the House Education Committee approved a measure on Tuesday.
House Bill 823, Choose Your School, Choose Your Future, is companion legislation to a bill that passed a Senate committee last week.
Like the Senate version, H.B. 823 would expand eligibility for Opportunity Scholarships to all families in a tiered system based on income. Lower income households would be first priority, while wealthier families would have access if sufficient funds remain available.
“This is a wildly popular program, and it is about putting children first,” said Rep. Tricia Cotham, R-Mecklenburg, the primary sponsor of H.B. 823. “All children are different. You all know that if you’re a parent, a grandparent. If I’m picking education for my children to go to a different school, how could I stand here and deny the single mom in Greensboro that she can’t have that chance? Just because I have the ability to afford it, that she can’t? That’s wrong and it’s hypocritical.”
Democrats voiced opposition to the bill. Rep. Rose Gill, D-Wake, put forward an amendment that would have only allowed the bill to apply to families not already enrolled in private schools. The amendment failed in a voice vote.
“This bill, in my opinion, poses a great threat to our public education system,” Gill said. “And it does not advance the stated goals of fostering greater choice, as this funding will go to families who already send their children to private school. Choice is great, but most parents who send their kids to private school have already made the choice.”
Rep. Julie Von Haefen, D-Wake, said it was fiscally irresponsible to send more funds to the program because private schools are “unaccountable.”
“I’m absolutely opposed to this,” she said. “It’s going to devastate our public schools. We have billions of dollars that we owe to fulfill our constitutional responsibility. As a parent of public school children, I have made the choice to send my kids to [public] school and my choice is not being honored at all.”
Cotham countered that private schools are accountable to parents and that the neediest kids will still be the most helped by the scholarship program.
“I know the argument is going to be this is for rich kids. Absolutely false. The data does not support that. The students who are most at need receive the most funding,” Cotham said. “Let’s empower all children in North Carolina and all families. Of course, if you want to stay in your great public school, absolutely. I’m a product of great public schools and a teacher of the year, twice. But let’s not get lost in the rhetoric and trying to find misinformation and a ‘gotcha’ moment. That’s wrong for kids.”
Currently, Opportunity Scholarships are only available to families earning 200% or less of the amount required to qualify for the federal free and reduced-lunch program. Both bills in the General Assembly, however, would expand access to all families.
Using the example of a family of four, the new law would give first priority to households earning $55,500 a year or less, second priority to those earning $111,000 a year or less, third priority to those earning, $249,750 a year or less, and then any remaining funds would be available to households earning incomes higher than these.
The value of each scholarship would also ratchet down based on income. Lower income households would qualify for 100% of the scholarship — around $7,400 this year — while the next three categories would receive 90%, 60%, and 45%, respectively.