North Carolina’s new budget extends and increases funding for the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program over the next 12 years.
The North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship program, enacted in 2013, provides vouchers worth up to $4,200 per student to low-income families to attend private schools of their choice.
In the budget Gov. Pat McCrory (R) signed into law in July, Republican lawmakers included a provision adding about 2,500 more scholarships and increasing funding of the program by $10 million every year for the next 12 years. The voucher budget for the 2016–17 school year is approximately $25 million and will increase to about $145 million by 2028–29 to serve almost 36,000 students. There will be an estimated 6,200 scholarships available in 2016–17.
‘Demand Is Rising’
State Senate President Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) says the expansion of school choice is a matter of meeting rising demand.
“North Carolina is very proud of its Opportunity Scholarship program, and since 2013, we have realized that if a kid starts the program in, say, the 2nd grade, chances are they will need to be enrolled in it the next year and maybe until they finish 12th grade,” Berger said. “What this budget does is fund the scholarship for as long as the child needs it. Now [that parents] know it is here to stay, more parents want to enroll their kids in the program, and demand is rising.”
Helping the Poorest Children
Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, says the voucher program helps the neediest children.
“This is the 21st century, and no one has a patent on how best to educate students,” Allison said. “The Opportunity Scholarship program didn’t come out of nowhere. It was designed to create educational mobility for the poorest families whose children are trapped in underperforming schools. The Opportunity Scholarship Program goes a long way toward remedying that.
“Low-income people are taxpayers, too, and these families have a right to make sure their tax dollars are working for them,” Allison said.
Sees Bright Future
Allison says the voucher program has grown significantly since the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled it constitutional. The North Carolina Association of Educators, together with local school boards, filed two lawsuits shortly after the program’s inception alleging it was unconstitutional to take money away from public schools and to fund private schools with taxpayer money. The Supreme Court upheld the program as constitutional in 2015.
“This year, from February 2016 to July 2016, we’ve had about 8,500 applicants,” said Allison. “So, as a result of the legal cloud being removed, and after only half a year, we’ve already gotten nearly the same number of applications as all of last year. This bodes very well for the program.”
With the commitment to fund and grow the Opportunity Scholarship program, “North Carolina will become one of the national leaders for the school choice movement,” Allison said.
Calling for More
Bob Luebke, a senior policy analyst in education for the Civitas Institute, says the future of school choice in North Carolina looks bright, but he says more work still needs to be done.
“We have been on an education campaign with legislators from states which have passed school choice, meeting with them to talk about their experiences with it,” Luebke said. “We’re hoping next spring to get a few new, related bills passed, and we’d like to do something more for special-needs students.”
Luebke says vouchers generally poll well with Democrats and Republicans alike.
“It’s kind of funny because vouchers are the only issue which polls well with both Democrats and Republicans,” Luebke said. “Unfortunately, legislative opinion has not caught up with public opinion.”
Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.