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The General Assembly doesn't quite understand school choice
Senate Republicans introduce a relatively weak version of the universal school choice bills enacted in other states
The philosophy behind school choice is as simple as it is powerful: Parents know best what their children need for their education. And the money the state invests is intended to support students, not school systems.
Around the country, Republican-led states are embracing this philosophy and fueling the most significant expansion of school choice programs in years.
In state after state, governors have signed into law programs that allow every family to access the money designated for their child's education and put it toward the school of their choice — including private schools, religious schools or home schools.
Last week, North Carolina waded into these waters, filing a bill in the N.C. Senate that would make all of the state's families eligible for money they can use toward tuition or education expenses. Senator President Pro Tem Phil Berger’s office touted it as the biggest proposed expansion of school choice in the state's history.
The bill is a great step forward, building on the success of the overwhelmingly popular Opportunity Scholarship program.
But there are key differences between North Carolina’s version of “universal school choice” and how it’s been put into effect in other states. These differences would make North Carolina’s one of the weaker universal school choice programs in the country — and threaten to undermine the entire philosophy behind the movement in the process.
As the national tide rushes toward embracing school choice, North Carolina’s version of this legislation shows that Republicans in our state don’t quite understand the movement.
Breaking down North Carolina's school choice proposal
To understand the new proposal, you first must be familiar with Opportunity Scholarships in North Carolina.
This program was first introduced in 2013 and offered vouchers of up to $4,200 per school year for low-income families in failing public schools to be able to afford to send their children to private school.1
Since then, the program has slowly expanded, gradually increasing the potential value of the voucher (to $6,500) and raising the income level of families who qualify solidly into the middle class.2
This year’s school choice bill takes another significant step forward in that same vein.
Under Senate Bill 406, all families are eligible to apply for Opportunity Scholarships, regardless of income level. But the amount of money families can receive is highly dependent on how much money they earn.
Low-income families are eligible for a maximum scholarship of about $7,2003. As income rises, the total amount of the scholarship rapidly declines.
With that greatly expanded eligibility, the General Assembly will begin to set aside a lot more money for the program. In 2017, the legislature allocated under $45 million for Opportunity Scholarships. This school year, that number is about $95 million.
That allocation jumps to $176.5 million for the 2023-24 school year, the first year the expansion would take effect. However, this budget increase was already planned. The new bill does increase funding beginning in the 2025-26 school year, to $366.5 million from a planned $206.5 million.
How the bill compares to other states' efforts
The North Carolina bill was introduced just days after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that would expand the state's school choice program to make all families eligible.
Under Florida's program, all families could be eligible to receive a voucher of up to $8,000 per student to attend the school of their choosing. Families could also access a $750 scholarship for transportation to and from their school.
Applications from low- and middle-income families would have priority for the program, with higher-income families having access to scholarships depending on demand and money available.
While figures are still being finalized, Florida is setting aside around $2 billion for the scholarship program next year.
That state's bill is similar to other states that have embraced similar programs, like Iowa, Utah and Arkansas. Most give priority to low-income families, but do not pro-rate the amount families can receive based on income.
This is a more traditional school choice argument. If the state is willing to spend a certain amount of money per student, it follows that parents should be able to decide where their student’s allotment should go.
Why this matters
It’s pretty clear why Senate Republicans took the approach they did. They’re terrified that they will be criticized by the left for supporting a “giveaway” to rich families to attend private school.
That specific attack is why the Opportunity Scholarship program developed as it has. Rather than proactively making the case for school choice, Republicans have chosen to try to neuter specific criticisms.
That still hasn’t stopped Gov. Roy Cooper and the Democratic Party from trying to undercut the program. Cooper’s budgets have generally included a phase-out of the program, and left-leaning groups unsuccessfully sued to block Opportunity Scholarships altogether.
Democrats say school choice scholarships “siphon” away money from public schools and send it to “unaccountable” private schools. Republicans have countered by saying the money is overwhelmingly going to low-income students trapped in failing schools.
It’s a fine argument, but it’s not really a case for school choice.
Sadly, this new school choice bill continues to have the school choice debate on the left’s terms. It validates the Democrats’ premise that private school vouchers are giving away money that’s the traditional public school system’s by right. Ceding that ground threatens to undercut the entire school choice movement in North Carolina.
Instead, the General Assembly should make the case that the state’s education dollars aren’t for bureaucracies — they’re for students. Money should support the child, not prop up a system.
Either the General Assembly doesn’t understand the concept of school choice, or they don’t believe in it enough to defend it.
4 things of note
Gov. Roy Cooper's iron grip over North Carolina politics has cracked
What's happening: For the first time in five years, the General Assembly managed to successfully override one of Gov. Roy Cooper's vetoes. The House voted Wednesday to override the veto of Senate Bill 41, which scrapped North Carolina's archaic county-based pistol purchase permit system.
Interestingly, the override vote did not reach the 72-member threshold theoretically required in the House. That's because several Democrats were not at the legislature when the vote occurred. The law requires three-fifths of members present to vote in favor of an override. One Democrat, Rep. Tricia Cotham, told WBTV that she opposed the override but missed the vote because she was receiving treatment in the hospital for long COVID.
Why it matters: It's extremely significant that the General Assembly succeeded in overriding a veto after years of failure. That opens the door for more Republican priorities to become law through this long session — especially on broadly popular issues like school choice and transparency in education. It's unclear whether the Democrats who missed the vote did so on purpose, but that should become apparent if it becomes a pattern in future override votes.
What comes next: There are likely many more override efforts still to come. The liberal group Carolina Forward is already trying to raise money to challenge the three Democrats who missed the vote on the override in the next primary.
House drops first version of state budget
It’s the long session, so that means the biennial state budget is the main focus of the General Assembly’s attention. The state House released its first take on a two-year budget this week.
7.5% raises for state employees (over two years)
10% raises for teachers (over two years)
Personal income tax rates fall to 4.5% a year ahead of schedule, and the standard deduction increases slightly
An additional $1 billion per year for water and sewer infrastructure, and an additional $1 billion for road projects
$400 million for a new industrial megasite
But of particular interest this year are all the little extras tucked into the bill. The General Assembly frequently uses budget bills as a sort of omnibus package that also includes a ton of non-financial stuff.
Expect that to be an even bigger feature this year, since the implementation of Medicaid expansion requires the budget to be passed. This means Gov. Roy Cooper will have a harder time vetoing the budget, so Republicans can be more aggressive in putting things in there that might get vetoed as a standalone bill. So far, these things include:
"Medical freedom" provision that prevents state agencies from discriminating based on COVID vaccination status. This includes a prohibition on school districts requiring children to be vaccinated against COVID.
Academic transparency for public school districts, requiring them to publish lesson plans and teaching materials online.
Cutting off state funding for organizations that provide abortions.
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis to visit early primary states
What's happening: In response to questions about whether U.S. Sen. Them Tillis is considering running for president, his campaign office confirmed to the N&O that Tillis will visit early primary states in the coming months — but will not run for that office himself.
Why this matters: Tillis has spent much of the last year trying to carve out a reputation as a bipartisan dealmaker and maverick public servant (think John McCain) who can appeal in purple states. In theory, this could put him in a position to be a VP pick.
What comes next: Look to see Tillis in Iowa and New Hampshire. It will be interesting to see who he ends up aligning himself with. Perhaps former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley? Or U.S. Sen. Tim Scott?
Rep. Bradford considering run for state treasurer
What's happening: Now that State Treasurer Dale Folwell plans to run for governor in 2024, a Mecklenburg County state representative is considering a run to fill his seat. Rep. John Bradford, who represents the towns immediately north of Charlotte, announced on Twitter that he's heard a lot of support for a potential run and believes he is an "ideal" candidate. Bradford is a real estate investor and startup CEO.
Why it matters: Bradford is the sole Republican in the Mecklenburg delegation, and his recent races have been extremely tight. His departure would make it that much more difficult for the GOP to defend the seat.
What comes next: While Folwell has said he's running for governor, filing isn't until December and he may end up changing his mind. If Folwell makes more moves toward mounting a campaign, we'll likely see more Republican candidates enter the race. Bradford said he'll make a formal decision in the next few weeks.
1 good idea from another state
New Mexico to offer free school lunches to all
The state of New Mexico has enacted legislation that will provide free school meals to all students regardless of family income. The program costs a relatively paltry $22 million per year, but eliminates thorny problems like mounting school lunch debt and stigma around accepting free lunches for low-income families.
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To receive a full Opportunity Scholarship, your family had to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch at school (roughly earning less than $29,000 for a family of two or $44,000 for a family of four). Families earning up to 133% of the free or reduced lunch income limits could get an Opportunity Scholarship worth 90% of the cost of tuition at a private school, up to a $4,200 limit. Another big caveat: You couldn’t quality for an Opportunity Scholarship if your child already attended a private school or home school. The child had to have been enrolled in a traditional public school or charter school previously.
In the current school year, the maximum Opportunity Scholarship value is about $6,500 — calculated as 90% of the average the state pays per-pupil for education. Families making up to $111,000 for a family of four were eligible to apply this year, though the public school attendance requirement is still in effect.
This is 100% of the state’s average per-pupil expenditure on education. For higher income brackets, the scholarship amount is a lower percentage of this figure — 90%, 60% or 30%.