All families in North Carolina would be eligible for the Opportunity Scholarship Program under a bill that moved through the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday.
Senate Bill 406, Choose Your School, Choose Your Future, would make Opportunity Scholarships universally available in a tiered system with more funding going to low- and moderate-income families and a smaller amount available to wealthier families. The bill would become effective for the 2024-2025 school year.
“Today is a great day for kids. That’s what this is all about,” said Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, the lead sponsor of the bill.
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.
During a press conference earlier in the morning, lawmakers and parents spoke in favor of the program.
“This legislation is about kids first, about families being able to make the best decisions for their child,” said Rep. Tricia Cotham, R-Mecklenburg, the lead sponsor on a companion bill in the House. “I’ve been a teacher. I’ve been a principal. I can tell you that one-size-fits-all in education does not work for every child in North Carolina.”
Cotham shared that she was initially “anti-school choice” during her first stint in the legislature. But her experience as a mother putting her own children in school contributed to changing her mind.
“That’s where my policy really started to change, because as a policymaker and as a mom, I’m also not a hypocrite,” Cotham said. “And so I do believe that as policymakers and legislators, if you’re sending your own child to private school or to a charter, then we cannot say to others, ‘Well, you can’t.’”
Dave and Rosie Mayberry shared how their children have benefited from Opportunity Scholarships. They said they pulled one of their daughters out of the local public school due to bullying.
“This scholarship has changed our life,” Rosie shared. “For our children, they are thriving in their school, where prior to they were behind in almost every subject.”
But not everyone is on board. During the committee meeting, several Democrats raised concerns about the implications of S.B. 406. They focused their firepower on the fact that when first presented, Opportunity Scholarships were built around helping low- and medium-income families afford private school tuition, while under the new bill, the scholarships would be universally available.
Democrats were additionally concerned private schools would increase the cost of tuition due to the new availability of the scholarships. They also wanted more accountability metrics for private schools.
“We already have a whole lot of choice, and I’m not sure that this bill, which goes very far in the direction of funding private schools, is necessary to provide the choice that students need and that families need,” said Sen. Natasha Marcus, D-Mecklenburg.
“Individual kids and families that are stuck in a school that’s failing them, they need choice,” Lee responded. “We have some amazing traditional public schools. We also have some that aren’t amazing. The ultimate accountability metric is the family and the student.”