By David Bass
Many North Carolinians breathed a sigh of relief last week when the GOP-led legislature and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper came to terms on a budget for the new biennium. School choice advocates were among them and have plenty to celebrate in the new spending plan.
“There is greater demand for educational options than ever before. Thanks to the efforts of state lawmakers, North Carolina parents have even greater access to public and private school choice programs for their children,” said Dr. Terry Stoops, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation.
“This year, approximately one in four children are attending a school of choice. Yet, countless families still lack access to public charter schools or resources to attend nonpublic schools. This budget gets North Carolina much closer to ensuring that any family who chooses a school of choice will have the requisite access and resources for it.”
Under the new budget, the state’s largest school choice program — the Opportunity Scholarship Program — gets a significant boost. The maximum scholarship award amount jumps from a flat $4,200 a year to $5,900 per student. That amount is based on 90% of the state’s per-pupil spending on public schools, meaning that as spending increases each year, so does the value of the scholarship amount.
The new budget also opens the scholarship to new families by raising the income threshold to qualify from around $73,000 a year to about $85,000 a year.
All foster children may now qualify, regardless of their parents’ income level. The budget broadens the pool of students who qualify who are the children of recently honorably discharged service members.
N.C. Opportunity Scholarships are designed to give low- and moderate-income families the opportunity to leave their locally zoned public school and attend a private school that is a better fit for their students.
The budget also combines the Children with Disabilities Grant Program and Education Savings Account into one program to ensure adequate funding and reduce waitlists — to the tune of over $31 million in funding beginning with the 2022-23 school year. Currently, the disabilities grant and ESA program provide up to $8,000 and $9,000, respectively, for students with special needs to help defray the cost of tuition, specialized treatments, and therapies, or equipment.
For the current 2021-22 school year, the budget increases funding for the Disabilities Grant by nearly $6 million and by more than $9 million for the ESA program.
Cooper’s signature on the budget is significant due to his stalwart opposition to the Opportunity Scholarship Program and school choice in general. Cooper has been a vocal opponent of these scholarships, trying to zero out the program in his budget proposals year after year.
“This budget isn’t narrowly focused on public schools, although school districts will receive enormous benefits from it,” Stoops said. “Instead, lawmakers crafted a budget that embraces the concept of educational pluralism and parental decision-making in an unprecedented way.”