Legislation to expand school choice in North Carolina is on the move in both chambers of the General Assembly, after both the N.C. Senate Education Committee and Rules Committee OK’ed a measure to increase the dollar value of Opportunity Scholarships and open them to more families.

Senate Bill 671 passed out of committee with little debate, but the gloves are sure to come off when the bill lands on the Senate floor.

“Every parent has more information than the best teacher, the best administrator, the best bureaucrat could ever have as to the needs of a particular child,” said Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham. “The circumstances of birth shouldn’t constrain a child’s educational opportunities.”

About 16,000 students receive Opportunity Scholarships for the 2020-21 school year, with an average household income around $38,700 a year, according to the bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover.

In addition to expanding the Opportunity Scholarship Program, S.B. 671 would combine the Children with Disabilities Grant Program and Education Savings Account into one program to ensure adequate funding and reduce wait lists. Both of those programs are designed to help students with special needs access a better learning environment.

Parent stories

At a news conference before the committee vote, three sets of parents spoke on the impact of the school-choice programs on their families.

Melanie Osborne, a single mother of five daughters including a set of quadruplets, called the Opportunity Scholarship Program “life changing.” Her oldest daughter is going to Harvard University in the fall, a dream since she was 5.

“As a parent, you know what’s best for your children. Please, do open this up for more kids,” Osborne said.

Melissa Mitchell, a mother of four with three boys on the Opportunity Scholarship, also shared her story. She said her children now light up and enjoy going to school.

“I read articles a lot saying that the Opportunity Scholarship helps people who would already be sending their child to a private school to be able to just make it easier. That’s not us — we could never have done this without the Opportunity Scholarship,” Mitchell said.

A third parent, James Martin, is a retired Army combat veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. His daughter, Mia, has autism and needed an individualized education to thrive. Their family decided to stay in North Carolina, specifically because of the education Mia was receiving, due to support through the Children with Disabilities Grant Program and Education Savings Account.

“Most people think you’re just going from a public to a private school,” Martin said. “No, she is going to a specialized education program that suits her individual educational needs on a daily basis. It’s something that is very difficult to replicate in most other states.”

Differing versions

Earlier this month, the House passed its own version of school choice expansion — House Bill 32 — in a party-line 69-49 vote. The biggest difference between the House and Senate versions boil down to the amount of each scholarship and the household income threshold needed to qualify. 

Currently, Opportunity Scholarships are worth up to $4,200 a year for low-income families to use for private-school tuition. S.B. 671 would bump that maximum to around $5,800 annually, according to Lee. H.B. 32 limits the scholarship to $4,610 the first year before ratcheting up to $5,269 in following years. The amounts are based on current per-pupil funding rates for public school students.

The House version adds an extra financial kicker in the form of permitting local school districts to allocate an additional $1,000 in local funding per scholarship recipient, on top of the state funding.

As for household income, a family of four could gross up to $49,025 per year and still qualify for the full scholarship amount, under current guidelines. That annual income could even stretch to $73,538 per year and a student would still receive 90% of the tuition amount.

H.B. 32 would keep the income limits at the current level — 150% of income needed to qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program — while S.B. 671 would expand that figure to 175%. That is $85,794 per year for a family of four.