The North Carolina House of Representatives moved to expand private school voucher eligibility to families all of incomes and spend nearly $400 million more annually on the vouchers in years to come — one of the biggest boosts in education dollars in years, an effort that is fueling an intense debate over how schools are funded.
After more than two hours of debate, the House passed House Bill 823 by a 65-to-45 vote Wednesday. It now heads to the Senate for review, where an identical bill has already passed the Senate Education/Higher Education committee.
House Bill 823 would make vouchers to attend a private school one of the state’s biggest education line items.
Supporters argued that the expansion would give more families more opportunities to choose where their children go to school, especially for children with special needs. Opponents argued the bill would divest from underfunded public schools and increase investment in a private landscape in which not all students were accepted.
An Office of State Budget and Management analysis released last week estimated public schools would lose thousands of students to the private schools, costing them more than $200 million annually by the 2026-27 school year, before the program expanded to well more than half a billion dollars during the 2032-33 school year.
Private school vouchers, called Opportunity Scholarships in North Carolina, are checks written by the state, on behalf of qualifying families who apply for the voucher, to a private school. The child must apply to the private school and be accepted to qualify.
“We don’t need to bleed off money to send to the private sector,” said Rep. Abe Jones, D-Wake. “We need to strengthen the public schools where most people’s kids are going to still be going.”
Bill Sponsor Rep. Tricia Cotham, R-Mecklenberg, framed the issue from a different angle. She said some students aren’t engaged in school and need to be.
“Maybe a kid says they hate school” Cotham said. “It’s just not the place, maybe the school is too big, maybe it’s the type of curriculum, maybe they have dyslexia and need another location for them. So this would give families, parents, the opportunity because they know their child the best to say where their child should go to school.”
Rep. Amber Baker, D-Forsyth, said private schools can and do reject students with some disabilities, which public schools can’t do.
House Bill 823 is identical to Senate Bill 406, which has also passed through the Senate’s education committee and is also proposed within the Senate’s draft budget. The bills, sponsored by Republicans, could have enough support to override an expected veto from the Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
The bills would more than double spending on the state’s private school voucher program from $133.3 million this year to well more than $400 million in the 2024-25 school year. It would expand eligibility for vouchers from just lower-income families to families of all incomes, while requiring at least 50% of funds to go to children whose families qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. The lowest-income families would receive more than $7,000 in a year, while the wealthiest would receive more than $3,000 in a year, starting in the 2024-25 school year. For the first time, students already attending a private school would also be eligible for the vouchers.
Research is mixed on the impact of private school vouchers on student achievement, with some studies showing performance declines in some states among students who transferred to private schools while studies in other areas showed higher graduation rates among voucher recipients. No testing data exist to compare outcomes in North Carolina, and some research done here did not involve randomly selected students.
North Carolina private schools don’t take state tests, and the Opportunity Scholarship program does not track the academic outcomes of voucher recipients.
Cotham argued that private schools are accountable based on enrollment, because people can easily unenroll.
“It is not designed to give better choices but to substantially increase subsidies to students attending unregulated private schools,” said Rep. Rosa U. Gill, D-Wake.
That funding would drop for public schools, as they lose students, frustrated many Democrats, some of whom noted their children attend schools without enough teachers. They noted that North Carolina spends less per public school student than most other states.
Rep. Maria Cervania, D-Wake, urged lawmakers to recognize what’s working with public schools, too. When she was a Wake County commissioner, big businesses agreed to open offices in the fast-growing county.
“They didn’t say, ‘We’re coming here because of your private school,’” Cervania said. “Every one of those businesses said, ‘We’re coming here because of your public school education.’”
Some members also pointed to existing and historical practices in North Carolina to support their position.
Rep. Kelly E. Hasting, R-Gaston, noted the state already provides need-based college scholarships that can be used at private colleges.
Rep. Tim Longest, D-Wake, likened the program to the Pearsall Plan, which North Carolina adopted in the 1960s for the state to fund private school tuition for students who did not want to attend integrated public schools.
Rep. Ken Fontenot, R-Wilson, said the voucher program today serves many non-wealthy families and could serve even more.
“The people that I see are benefiting from this are people who want what we all want, safety standards, opportunities, now,” Fontenot said. He noted Democrats want investment in public schools but said long-term investments won’t help students who need a solution now.
That’s like saying, “’You have to wait until we get it together, although the future isn’t waiting for you,’” he said.
Rep. Laura Budd, D-Mecklenberg, noted delays in those long-term investments Democrats are asking for, namely the investments agreed to in the 29-year-old education adequacy lawsuit, Hoke County Board of Education, et. al. v. State of North Carolina, et. al., commonly known as “Leandro.”
That plan calls for at least $4.5 billion more in education funding by 2028 and numerous policy changes. Those include more funding for students with disabilities or who are disabled in some way, early childhood education and pre-kindergarten and school turnaround and accountability efforts. Republican General Assembly leadership does not support the plan, which has been ordered by the North Carolina Supreme Court though remains in legal limbo.