Around 54,800 applicants for the Opportunity Scholarship Program remain in limbo as the North Carolina House and Senate continue their stalemate on budget adjustments during the short session.

Both chambers of the General Assembly have passed their own versions of the state budget, and both contain provisions that would clear the waitlist for the state’s voucher program at a cost of $487 million. Even so, the hope of having a spending plan passed in June appears less and less likely. The state’s new fiscal year starts July 1.

Opportunity Scholarships are the state’s voucher program enabling families to choose a private school education for their children. Each scholarship is valued at between $7,468 and $3,360 each year, spread across four income tier levels ranging from $57,720 for a family of four in the first tier, to more than $259,740 a year in the fourth tier. A record-breaking 72,000 applications were received for the scholarships in February.

In addition to funding the Opportunity Scholarship waitlist, both budget bills include $24.7 million in recurring funds to clear the waitlist for the Education Savings Account program, or ESA+There are an estimated 2,015 applicants on that waitlist.

Senate leadership has indicated they are prepared to send senators home for the July 4th recess and only return to Raleigh when an agreement has been reached. That could take weeks or even months. Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, recently said on the Senate floor that lawmakers could wait until early 2025 if necessary.

Even if lawmakers don’t pass a budget this year, the state’s existing budget will remain in place. But that would mean the Opportunity Scholarship waitlist would be out of luck. Only the lowest income families in the first tier, and some families in the second tier, have already received awards.

In a recent letter to House and Senate leaders, a coalition of school choice groups urged policymakers to act quickly to help families facing uncertainty with regard to the voucher program.

“Leaders, there are real issues at play in dragging out your intended expansion of OSP and ESA+. Families are being forced to decline seats in private schools. The inaction has a ripple effect across the lives of those families, and students, in addition to private school communities,” the letter said.

The school choice advocates also pointed out that many families in the middle-income tiers who remain on the waitlist are being impacted.

“These are the families that RIGHT NOW are telling private schools that they cannot commit to accepting their seat for the coming school year until this scholarship funding is secured. Prolonging the current uncertainty will leave these families on the outside looking in,” the letter states.

“The frustration is growing, soon the distrust will start to grow, because parents and families heard expanded eligibility was here and that scholarship dollars were coming, but as of today – less than five-months from November’s election – that promise has not been fulfilled.”

One of the biggest differences between the two spending plans is on raises: The House budget gives more significant pay bumps to public school teachers and state employees. Overall, Senate leaders believe the House spending plan taps too deeply into the state’s reserve funds.

Moving forward, House lawmakers do have the option of passing a stand-alone bill to clear the voucher waitlist. In May, the Senate approved a stand-alone bill and sent it over to the House, but that chamber hasn’t taken it up.