By Julie Havlak
Carolina Journal News Service
RALEIGH — North Carolina’s lawmakers are moving to advance school choice.
Republicans on Thursday, Jan. 28, introduced House Bill 32, Equity in Opportunity Act, to reform the Opportunity Scholarship program. The bill would expand low-income students’ access to scholarships, integrate state funding, streamline the program for students with special needs, and boost outreach to low-income families.
The push to expand access to Opportunity Scholarships comes during national School Choice Week.
The Opportunity Scholarship program offers up to $4,200 to help low-income families attend the private school of their choice. Republicans say the learning loss caused by the coronavirus pandemic and school shutdowns has made parental school choice a priority for the session.
“Our children are suffering. Our educators are working hard, but the very nature of remote learning has wreaked havoc with our kids,” Rep. Dean Arp, R-Union, said. “At its core, Opportunity Scholarships are intended to provide low-wealth families with opportunities that are not readily available to them otherwise.”
The bill aims to expand enrollment in the Opportunity Scholarship program. It reforms how scholarships are funded, as well as setting aside money for recruitment.
“This bill reorients the program into expansion mode rather than maintenance mode,” said Dr. Terry Stoops, John Locke Foundation director of the Center for Effective Education.
Under the bill, the old scholarship cap of $4,200 would disappear. Instead, Opportunity Scholarships would share in the funding the state sets aside per pupil. When the state gives more money to students, low-income students in the scholarship program would also benefit. It also frees counties to boost the program with their own dollars.
“It’s truly voluntary,” Arp said. “For those counties that don’t want to have a disparity or discriminate against the low-wealth kids that are a part of this. They’re not left out of what the county is doing for the benefit of the rest of the county. It puts them under the same umbrella and same care.”
Lawmakers are also trying to boost enrollment.
If the bill becomes law, the state could enlist nonprofits to help with outreach to students and families. The scholarship has struggled with recruitment in the past, and the program has collected more than $80 million in unspent funds over the years.
The bill would set aside up to $500,000 for partnering with nonprofits that represent parents and families. They could spend the money on outreach, promotion, or application assistance. Any leftover money would return to the General Fund.
“This really just takes a page from a book that we see in a lot of other states,” Stoops said. “State agencies are usually good at administering programs, but not the public relations aspect of managing them. This puts them in the hands of nonprofits who have the ability and the experience in doing that.”
This past September, lawmakers lifted a cap that restricted the number of kindergartners and first-graders who could get into the voucher program. Lawmakers also raised the limits on income so that a family of four earning $72,000 could qualify.
“We had an artificial cap on the number of students who could participate in this, and that left money in the system,” Arp said. “Removing those artificial caps will certainly free up the money, especially in this COVID situation. We believe that even more people will choose to seek the Opportunity Scholarships for their kids.”
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has vetoed other school choice initiatives in the past. The bill also faces opposition from many Democrats in the legislature.
“This is not a veto fight with the governor at all,” Arp said. “We need to offer parents the most choices we can to make sure their children don’t lose a year of learning. This is about real kids, real families, and the critical emergency we see in education.”
But if Cooper vetoes the bill, it could still become law, said Stoops.
“I think there’s a strong possibility that the bill will pass with a veto-proof majority,” Stoops said. “There are so many Democrats, especially African-Americans, who are strong supporters of school choice. I would not dismiss the possibility of a veto-proof majority.”