RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — All North Carolina families would be eligible to receive public money to send their children to private school regardless of income, under a bill that advanced in a Senate committee Wednesday. 

Republicans in the General Assembly have proposed a significant expansion of the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program. North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship program provides private school vouchers to children of low-income households. While families with the lowest incomes would be eligible for the most money, there would be no income limit anymore. 

“It’s the role of state government to help all kids all over North Carolina,” Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) said. “We’re not funding schools. We’re funding children.” 

The school voucher program began about one decade ago. Currently, about 25,000 students receive opportunity scholarships, according to the North Carolina Education Assistance Authority. 

The bill titled “Choose Your School, Choose Your Future” has the backing of Republican leaders in the House and Senate.  

Scholarships would be awarded on a sliding scale beginning in the 2024-25 school year.

Republicans originally wanted these changes to go into effect this upcoming school year. If that had occurred, lower-income families would be eligible for up to $7,213 per year. The wealthiest families could receive up to $3,246.

The scholarship amounts are revised annually based on the average state per pupil allocation for average daily membership (ADM) of the previous year.  

This year the state is spending about $133 million on the program. That would grow to more than $500 million in the 2031-32 school year. 

Gov. Roy Cooper (D) blasted the proposal on Twitter, calling it “worse than awful,” adding the state should be making “strong investments” in public schools.    

The GOP recently gained a veto-proof supermajority after Mecklenburg County Rep. Tricia Cotham changed her party registration. She’s one of the primary sponsors of the House version of the bill. 

She said Wednesday that when she first came to the legislature more than one decade ago she was opposed to the concept, but since enrolling her son in private school she believes more families should be able to do that. 

“I can tell you that one-size-fits-all in education does not work,” she said. “As a policymaker and as a mom, I’m also not a hypocrite.” 

Parents whose children have received the scholarship came to Raleigh Wednesday to advocate for expanding the program. 

Rosie Mayberry said two of her daughters have been able to attend private school because of it, that she said has helped them thrive.  

“They come home, they can’t wait to tell me every day what they’ve learned. Most of the time you can’t get a word out of your kids on what they did in school,” she said. “Even my most reluctant learner has loved books, has loved what she’s learned.” 

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D-Wake) questioned why the wealthiest families in the state should be eligible for the program.  

“If you are a family making over $1 million dollars a year, you’re still going to get a subsidy from the state to go to a private school. And, I think that’s wrong,” he said.  

Sen. Michael Lee told him, “We’re moving to a model of backpack funding with students in education that enables them to take their money to wherever they’re going to school.” 

Chaudhuri also raised concerns about the ability of private schools not to admit certain students. 

“That subsidy will still be going toward schools that are discriminatory against the LGBT community and may be discriminatory based on religion,” he said.  

This proposal comes amid a legal battle in North Carolina over public school funding.

Courts have previously ordered the state to spend more money implementing the so-called Leandro plan, that is aimed at improving schools.  

“I think it’s absurd that we are giving money to rich people to spend on private schools. They don’t need the money. They don’t need that help. That’s money that we could be using to hire teaching assistants,” Justin Parmenter, a public school teacher in Charlotte, said. “It shows a disappointing lack of commitment to traditional public schools, which are the foundation of our society, our communities in North Carolina.”  

Last week, the head of the North Carolina Association of Educators and other plaintiffs dropped their lawsuit challenging the Opportunity Scholarship program, the Associated Press reported. 

In a statement Wednesday, the group said, “The proposal to remove restrictions for who can access private school vouchers will increase public funds going into the hands of schools that don’t have to adhere to the same standards set by the NC Department of Instruction and can select the students they want to enroll.”