RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Republicans in the General Assembly backed a bill Wednesday that would increase eligibility and scholarship amounts for a state-funded program that helps low- and middle-income families afford private schools.
Gov. Roy Cooper (D) has proposed eliminating the Opportunity Scholarship program more than once in recent years, raising concerns about accountability and transparency.
Legislators heard Wednesday from Allaura Osborne, who attends school at North Raleigh Christian Academy. She said when she was younger she wanted a more challenging program than she was getting in her school at the time.
Going to private school is not something her mom, who’s a single parent of five, would have been able to afford.
“I desired to have more challenging courses. And, with the opportunity scholarship, it gave us the financial opportunity to be able to attend a school that challenged me,” she said. “And, it really has shaped me into the woman I am today.”
Allaura and her four younger sisters, who are quadruplets, are all recipients of the scholarships. This fall, she plans to attend Harvard where she wants to double major in math and government while minoring in Spanish. One day, she wants to be a lawyer.
“And, I think the scholarship really does pour into the youth. It gives them what they need and what they desire to help them grow and be the best they possibly can be,” she said.
A bill Senate Republicans are backing would increase the maximum scholarship from $4,200 to about $5,800, said Sen. Mike Lee (R-New Hanover). He said the goal was to help families cover more of the cost of tuition. His bill would also combine scholarship programs for students with disabilities in an effort to make it easier for families to apply, he said.
According to the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority, this school year there are about 16,000 students receiving the scholarships at a cost of about $61.2 million.
During a meeting Wednesday, staff members at the General Assembly said there was about $18 million allocated to the program in previous years that is unspent.
Democrats criticized the effort to expand the program further, saying it lacks accountability.
“We still don’t have real accountability measures, so we don’t know if these programs work,” said Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D-Wake). “This continues to shift money away from traditional public schools which is where I think we need to focus on first before we continue to expand voucher programs.”
Cooper’s proposed budget does not include funding for the program. He’s previously told CBS 17 he doesn’t think it’s “a good way to spend taxpayer money” and said that funding could be used elsewhere, such as on increasing public school teacher pay.
Republican Senate leader Phil Berger pushed back on the criticism, saying families should have the choice even if they don’t have the income to afford private schools.
“The amount of money that we spend for each child from traditional public schools is more than an Opportunity Scholarship,” he said. “And, it provides for these families an outcome and a choice that is far superior than the choice they are given at the school that happens to be in the area where they live.”
In a statement, Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, said funding for the program should be going to public schools as they reopen for in-person instruction.
“Broadly, private school vouchers are a solution in search of a problem. There simply is no conclusive evidence that vouchers improve the achievement of students who use them to attend private school,” she said. “Private schools have almost complete autonomy regarding how they operate. Those private schools currently receiving voucher funds have no restrictions on who they teach, what they teach, how they teach, how they measure student achievement, how they manage their finances, and what they are required to disclose to parents and the public. The majority of private schools in North Carolina receiving voucher funds are religious in nature, and all are permitted to discriminate on the basis of religious belief.”