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Republicans, education advocates square off again over expanding private school voucher program

[1]You can hear the anger rising in Yevonne Brannon’s voice as she talks about the state’s controversial school voucher program.

Brannon, a spokeswoman for Public Schools First N.C. [2], a K-12 advocacy organization, thinks it’s outrageous that a family with an annual income of more than $71,000 could receive state tax dollars to help pay for private school tuition.

But that’s exactly what would happen under state Senate-proposed changes to North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program.

“It undermines and contributes to the demise of public education in North Carolina,” Brannon said.

Introduced last week by a bipartisan trio of sponsors, Senate Bill 609 [3] would lift the income eligibility cap for the program from 133 percent to 150 percent of the amount required for a child to qualify for free or reduced priced lunches.

That means more affluent families, those with an annual income of more than $71,000 a year, could receive state money to help pay their child’s private school tuition.

Currently, a household of four may earn no more than around $63,000 per year to qualify for the scholarship.

Sen. Deanna Ballard, a Watauga County Republican and one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said on the Senate floor last week that the proposed changes would “ultimately lead to just really expanded access for more working families to benefit from these scholarship programs.”

Ballard could not be reached for comment.

SB 609 co-sponsors include Ben Clark, a Cumberland County Democrat, and Todd Johnson, a Union County Republican. Clark is the only Democrat to vote in favor of the bill, which passed the Senate last week and was referred to the House’s Rules, Calendar and Operations committee.

The bill has set off a debate with the potential to become more contentious even than the 2013 bill that established the so-called “Opportunity Scholarships.”

Brannon remembers those early discussions about vouchers, and how school choice advocates argued vouchers would help low-income families escape low-performing schools.

Even then, Brannon said she thought the program would eventually become another exit ramp for middle-income and moderately affluent, white families to leave public schools.

“That’s exactly what we predicted was going to happen,” Brannon said.

Sen. Natasha Marcus, (D-Mecklenburg), was among a vocal group of Democrats who challenged SB 609 on the Senate floor when it was introduced last week.

“If we make this change, it’s no longer going to be a program as it was originally designed,” Marcus said. “Instead, we’re going to turn it into one for relatively high income families to send their kids to private schools, even if they can now afford private school from their own funds and even if there is an excellent public school with magnet and other choices and public charter schools they can attend.”

In an interview, Marcus said she could barely believe Republican leaders made expansion of the state’s voucher program a priority after thousands of teachers came to Raleigh on May 1 to ask them to fill basic needs.

Teachers demanded that lawmakers provide schools with enough librarians, psychologists, social workers, counselors, nurses, and other health professionals to meet national standards.

They also asked for a $15 minimum wage for all non-certified school personnel, expansion of Medicaid, reinstatement of retiree health benefits and restoration of advanced degree compensation.

“We can’t do those things, and here is extra money just sitting there for the voucher program,” Marcus said.

Millions in tax dollars set aside for the voucher program go unspent each year because too few families apply for available funding. Despite that fact, lawmakers have agreed to increase the pool of voucher money by $10 million a year to $144.8 million in 2027-28 school year.

Nearly $45 million was made available to families through the Opportunity Scholarship Program during the 2017-18 school year, and $37.7 million was distributed among 9,640 students this school year.

Marcus said the unspent money should be used for unmet needs identified by teachers last month.

Meanwhile, Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina [4] (PEFNC) applauded the proposed expansion of the voucher program.

“We’ve heard from families across North Carolina who could benefit from these proposed changes,” PEFNC President Mike Long said in a statement. “The time is right to take these important steps forward to strengthen our choice programs, which are providing thousands of families in our state with access to the schools that they feel are the best fit for their children.”

PEFNC also applauded a provision that eliminates the 40 percent cap on kindergartners and first-graders eligible for the voucher program.

As the Opportunity Scholarship Program was being created, it had no greater champion than former House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam, a Republican who did not seek re-election in 2016.

“For a family of four, 70k is not enough to afford private education,” Stam wrote in an emailed response to Policy Watch questions. [5]

He referred a reporter to a Feb. 1, 2018 paper he wrote in defense of the scholarship program, after the authors of a Duke University report asserted the program lacks sufficient accountability measures and diverts millions to primarily religious schools, some of which allegedly maintained anti-LGBTQ policies.

Supporters of vouchers and those opposed to them aren’t likely to ever see eye-to-eye on the private school subsidies.

But Sen. Jeff Jackson, (D-Mecklenburg), perhaps, put it best in describing why he and others believe it’s wrong to push income eligibility above $70,000 for Opportunity Scholarships.

“The original rationale – that this was about providing educational options to low income families – is gone,” Jackson wrote in a social media post to teachers. “This is full-fledged subsidizing private schools with public funds.”