North Carolina Senate approves $500 million for expanded private school vouchers

North Carolina Senate Republicans on Thursday pushed legislation through their chamber to temporarily set aside about $500 million more for programs that provide taxpayer money to help elementary students attend private schools and eliminate their wait lists.

On a party-line vote of 28-15, the Republican Senate majority agreed to spend the money. Nearly all will cover a surge in demand for Opportunity Scholarship grants since the Republican Party-dominated Legislature last fall agreed to eliminate family income limits for receiving a grant.

If the House votes on the Senate language, the bill could be on the desk next week of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, a longtime opponent of private school vouchers. Republicans have narrow veto-proof majorities in both chambers that could override any Cooper veto.

The end of income caps for eligibility for the Opportunity Scholarship program and the repeal of another eligibility requirement led to a six-fold increase in new applications for the upcoming school year. Nearly 55,000 children who qualified for the program this fall will otherwise be unable to access funds unless more money is allocated.

There is currently only enough money to award awards to children who have already received scholarships this school year, and to some new applicants whose family income has fallen below a certain level. For example, a family of four earning more than $115,440 is not considered.

Republican legislative leaders said during this year’s General Assembly work session, which began last week, that eliminating the waitlist is a top priority. An expected $1.4 billion in additional state revenues makes this possible.

Sen. Michael Lee, a New Hanover County Republican who is sponsoring the bill, portrayed the measure as fully funding a policy colleagues had already approved for parents seeking help with education alternatives for their children.

The private school scholarships began a decade ago and targeted children in low-income families. More recently, eligibility has been expanded to include middle-class families. The amount of the grants is tiered based on family income – ranging from a maximum of $7,468 for the lowest income families to $3,360 for the highest income level.

During hours of debate on the issue on Thursday, Senate Democrats argued that it was unfair for the wealthiest families to receive taxpayer-funded Opportunity Scholarships so they can send their children to private schools they can already afford, while public ones the state’s schools are competing for more funding. Cooper’s budget proposal for next year, released last week, would freeze scholarship awards at this year’s levels, resulting in $174 million more for public school students and teachers.

“I stand here with a message from our teachers and our parents,” said Sen. Val Applewhite, a Democrat from Cumberland County. “They called 911 for public information at this General Assembly. And they feel like the call is going to voicemail, or we’re just not answering it.”

Republicans counter that they have spent more money on K-12 public education and raising teacher salaries.

Other critics said Thursday that private schools that receive these grants do not have the same academic responsibility as public schools and may exclude some students based on religion, for example. Republicans blocked votes on Democratic amendments that would have partially barred higher-income families from attending and would have required private schools to meet more public school standards.

Republican senators argued that opponents of the program mischaracterized families in which two parents work and each earn less than $60,000, for example, as wealthy and unworthy of receiving scholarships.

“This bill is about giving the middle class meaningful access to school choice,” said Sen. Amy Galey, an Alamance County Republican, adding that opponents are “terrified that the middle class will gain access to an alternative to government-sponsored education , because it gives them access to an alternative to government-sponsored education.” They have no control over the content and they have no control over the results.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, North Carolina’s median household income in 2022 was $66,186.

The bill would spend another $248 million over the next year to eliminate the Opportunity Scholarship program waitlist and another $215.5 million to increase planned spending for the 2025-2026 school year. Similar annual adjustments would be permanent until the early 2030s.

The measure would also spend an additional $24.7 million annually to eliminate a waitlist of about 2,000 students for Education Student Accounts, which provides public funds for students with disabilities to attend private schools or receive services.