Education

Review indicates NC could soon have nation’s most extensive voucher program

School vouchersAs North Carolina inches toward becoming the 13th state in the nation to have a school voucher program, the Tar Heel state has had some company this spring in its “race to the voucher.” Texas, Wisconsin and New Jersey each considered statewide voucher programs during this year’s legislative sessions. None of these proposals, however, compare in scope to what North Carolina lawmakers are currently considering. Moreover, if North Carolina lawmakers do, in fact, pass the proposals currently pending, North Carolina would soon be home to one of the most – if not the most – extensive voucher programs in the nation.

Highlights from 2013

Texas – Texas’ school voucher bill, the “Equal Opportunity Scholarship Program,” died before it even reached the Senate floor, thanks in no small part to the clear lack of support  it received from state House members. That bill would have offered tax credits to businesses that establish scholarships helping low-income students who want to leave their public schools for private ones. The voucher bill was one of five school choice bills that the Texas legislature considered (and ultimately rejected) this spring.

Wisconsin – Governor Scott Walker recently signed into law the state’s FY 2014-15 budget, which includes a provision that will expand the Milwaukee voucher school program to cover the entire state. While the new law limits participation in the program to just 500 students in the first year and 1,000 students in the second, there is speculation that Governor Walker could move to lift those caps eventually.

New Jersey – Governor Chris Christie attempted to insert a pilot school voucher program into the state’s budget that would have given vouchers of up to $10,000 to students in poor, low- performing school districts, but the Democratically-controlled state legislature squelched his effort. Were the program to have passed, Christie could have faced a legal challenge over the fact that the state’s constitution strictly forbids the use of public dollars at religious institutions of education.

Existing programs

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), 12 states plus the District of Columbia already have school voucher programs. NCSL provides a handy chart comparing the school voucher programs, and also provides a brief history of the school voucher movement, detailing how school vouchers have gained ground in the United States. According to that history:

“In 1989, the Wisconsin legislature passed the nation’s first modern school voucher program targeting students from low income households in the Milwaukee School District.

In 2001, Florida enacted the John M. McKay Scholarships Program for Students with Disabilities becoming the first state to offer private school vouchers to students with disabilities.

In 2004, the first federally funded and administered voucher program was enacted by Congress in Washington, D.C. It offered private school vouchers to low income students, giving priority to those attending low-performing public schools

In 2007, the Utah legislature passed legislation creating the first statewide universal school voucher program, meaning it was available to any student in state with no limitations on student eligibility. A petition effort successfully placed the legislation on the state ballot for voter approval. In November 2007, the ballot measure was voted down and the new voucher program was never implemented. Utah’s existing special needs voucher program was not affected by the vote.

In 2011, Indiana created the nation’s first state-wide school voucher program for low income students.”

Here is a brief look at the existing programs that can be found in other states and how North Carolina’s pending proposals compare:

Florida, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Georgia, and Utah each have school voucher programs that are completely restricted to students who have disabilities or who have Individual Education Plans (IEPs). IEPs are designed for those who have some sort of special learning need.

Here in North Carolina, Rep. Marcus Brandon (D-Guilford) is pushing a bill that would offer vouchers to students with disabilities. (This proposal is separate from the primary voucher bill that is now in the House’s version of the state budget.) The legislation, “Children w/ Disabilities Scholarship Grants,” would switch out the current tax credit program with a scholarship of up to $6,000 per year per child for private school tuition. The bill has passed the House and is waiting to be heard in a Senate Finance committee.

Indiana, Louisiana, Wisconsin, and Washington D.C. each has some sort of household income threshold, ranging from 185 percent of the federal poverty level to as much as 300 percent, that determines voucher eligibility.

The proposed North Carolina’s school voucher bill inserted into the House budget proposal also originally set the household income limit as high as 300 percent of the federal poverty level. Facing pressure from critics who said that vouchers would not go to the neediest students with that high of an income limitation, lawmakers dropped it to level that confers eligibility for the federal free and reduced price lunch program. In Year Two of the program, that threshold rises to 133 percent of the free and reduced lunch program, or 240 percent of the federal poverty threshold.  

Arizona and Louisiana each have school voucher programs that also take into consideration public schools’ performance. In Arizona, students who attend public schools that receive a “D” or “F” under the state’s school grading system are eligible to receive a voucher to attend a private school. In Louisiana, if a student’s public school received a “C” or lower AND the student’s household income is 250 percent of the federal poverty threshold or lower, then that student is eligible for a voucher.

North Carolina public schools are also subject to a school grading system as part of “reform” legislation passed during the 2012 legislative session that is frequently criticized for not taking into consideration a school’s growth over time. Even, for instance, if a public school makes considerable progress from one year to next with regard to its students’ performance on standardized tests the school can still receive a “D” or “F” if those scores don’t meet a certain threshold.

This spring, Senate president Pro Tem Phil Berger took steps to toughen the school grading system in his education reform bill. Under Berger’s revised school grading system, 73 percent of North Carolina high schools would receive a “D” or “F.” The language in Berger’s bill was ultimately slipped into the budget proposal that is now under consideration by conference committee members.

Going forward

If both the disability proposal and the broader school voucher program become law during the 2013 session, it seems clear that  North Carolina could soon be home to one of the largest school voucher programs in the country. Stay tuned to NC Policy Watch and The Progressive Pulse for full coverage as the legislative session winds down in the days ahead.

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