May 6, 2024 - News

North Carolina voucher program could swell significantly

Illustration of a very large pencil filling out a check.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

North Carolina Republicans are moving to significantly expand the state's Opportunity Scholarship program, which offers state-funded vouchers to pay for private schooling, during the short session.

Why it matters: More than 72,000 families applied for private school vouchers this year, after the program was opened to all families in the state regardless of income.

State of play: Under the current funding level of $191 million, only a small portion of applicants in the lowest income levels received vouchers.

  • For example, a family of four making more than $115,440 could not receive a voucher.

Driving the news: A bill that moved through the state Senate, though, would add $248 million to the program to clear the waitlist — currently at around 55,000 families.

  • The bill would also increase annual voucher funding, rising to $800 million by 2031.

Yes, but: Many of the state's top private schools — from Providence Day in Charlotte to Ravenscroft School in Raleigh — don't accept vouchers, an Axios analysis found. Many North Carolina students receiving vouchers attend religious schools.

Between the lines: The program is one of the most significant changes to education in the state in recent years — potentially moving tens of thousands of students out of the public school system and into private schools in the coming year.

  • It's also sharply divided Republicans and Democrats within the General Assembly, with Gov. Roy Cooper aggressively campaigning against it, arguing it drains resources from public schools.

What they're saying: "Education dollars should follow students, no matter what school they attend," Republican Sen. Michael Lee of New Hanover County said in a statement. "Clearing these waitlists fulfills our commitment to families from across the state that want a stronger say in their child's education."

  • The state's Democratic Party, however, called the program a taxpayer giveaway to wealthy families. "It is a slap in the face to students, hard-working public school staff, and all North Carolinians," N.C. Democratic Party Chair Anderson Clayton said in a statement.

What's next: The bill could reach Cooper's desk next week, if the House agrees to the language in the Senate bill, the Associated Press notes.

  • Republicans currently have a veto-proof majority in both chambers, so they could potentially override the bill if Cooper opts to veto it.
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