The North Carolina Senate Appropriations Committee moved forward with a bill Wednesday that would fund scholarships for the estimated 54,800 applicants on the waitlist for Opportunity Scholarships.

The proposed committee substitute for House Bill 823 includes $248 million in nonrecurring funding for the upcoming school year, plus $215.5 million in recurring support for scholarships for the 2025-2026 school year.

Existing funding included in the 2023 budget was enough to pay for all renewal scholarships plus those in the first tier of income — the very lowest earners. Only around 2,300 applicants from the second tier received funding.

Opportunity Scholarships are the state’s voucher program that enable 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.

The bill’s primary sponsor in the Senate, Sen. Mike Lee, R-New Hanover, credited Gov. Roy Cooper for unintentionally promoting Opportunity Scholarships by staging a statewide tour criticizing the vouchers, spreading the word to families on their availability.

“You saw in the first day more applications were received than the entire priority application period of 2023. It was really amazing,” said Lee.

Cooper responded to the bill’s move forward on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Lee also sparred with Democrats on the committee who derided the funding increase.

“This is just a handout to [wealthy families],” said Sen. Natasha Marcus, D-Mecklenburg. “Seventy percent of the people you’re rushing to help earn more than $115,000 [a year]. My question is: Why is this your urgent priority, to provide welfare for the wealthiest families who are, in most cases, already affording to send their children to their private school, the school of their choice, as you call it, when we have so many other unmet needs?”

Lee countered with the example of married couple who both work and earn $55,000 a year each, who fall solidly in the middle class:

“A family where the breadwinners in the family are making $115,000 a year is not going to have that opportunity [to afford private school tuition], or a single mom with three kids … they have the right to be able to do that. We as a state should do that.”

Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford, said the funding increase showed wrong priorities for lawmakers. “This General Assembly has failed, every time, to fully fund Leandro to provide the social workers, the nurses, the salary for the teachers, the additional teacher assistances, etc., for all children,” she said. “That’s taxpayer money. We’re talking about taxpayer money for private schools.”

“Even with the appropriation this year, we’re still looking at an appropriation for Opportunity Scholarships of about 3% of the overall education budget, and just under 4.5% of the K-12 budget … as an overall percentage of the education budget, it’s incredibly small,” Lee responded.

Another Republican on the committee — Sen. Amy Galey of Alamance County — pointed out that for high-income earners, Opportunity Scholarships are simply returning a small portion of the tax money they send to state government.

“This is not welfare,” asserted Galey. “It’s actually their own money. They are the ones who pay the taxes. If you have a high-income earner of a family with over $260,000 in income, and they’re receiving back in an Opportunity Scholarship around $3,360, I would submit that that is well below the amount of taxes that they are still paying into the state of North Carolina and into the public school system — not to mention the property taxes that they are paying to the county and therefore funding the capital needs of the public school system.”

On the topic of wealthier families receiving scholarships, Lee ended the meeting with a jab at his Democrat colleagues who represent the more urban areas where the higher-income families live.

“The lion’s share of tier four is in Wake, Meck, Forsyth, Guilford, Cumberland, and Orange.” Lee pointed out. “If you all want to opt out your county, come see me after. If you want to amend this bill, I’ll be happy to discuss that with you.”

In addition to funding the Opportunity Scholarship waitlist, the bill includes $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.