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Gov. Roy Cooper during a news conference March 10 to announce plan to reopen schools. (CJ photo by Maya Reagan)

Republicans in the N.C. House are advancing a bill that would expand and strengthen the state’s three school-choice scholarship programs that help low-income children and those with special needs attend a private school.

The action sets up a coming confrontation with Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, who has consistently targeted the state’s largest school-choice program — the Opportunity Scholarship — for defunding in his budget proposals. Cooper made that move once again in his latest budget.

On Tuesday, March 23, the House Education Committee passed House Bill 32 and sent it to the House Rules Committee for a vote before going to the full House floor, as early as next week.

H.B. 32 makes several key updates to Opportunity Scholarships. Topping that list, under the bill the old scholarship cap of $4,200 per year would disappear and, instead, each scholarship recipient would share in 70% of the funding the state sets aside per pupil — eventually scaling up to 80%. 

That means students would qualify for up to $4,610 a year and then ratcheting up to $5,269, based on current per-pupil funding rates.

Additionally, individual school districts could allocate $1,000 in local funding per scholarship recipient on top of the state funding. The bill would also set aside $500,000 for the state to partner with nonprofits to promote the program to families through outreach and application assistance.

At the House Education Committee hearing last month, a number of Democrats expressed reservations about the bill and the Opportunity Scholarship Program broadly. Members voted down an amendment that would have required some students who receive an Opportunity Scholarship to take an exam to gauge the program’s effectiveness.

“Democratic opposition to these programs is inevitable, albeit not universal,” said Dr. Terry Stoops, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation. “A handful of equity-focused Democrats recognize that low-income and special needs children should be given additional resources to access non-public schools that better meet their needs.”

Above and beyond the Opportunity Scholarship Program, H.B. 32 would also combine the Children with Disabilities Grant Program and Education Savings Account into one program to ensure adequate funding and reduce wait lists. 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.

Stoops says the “transformation” of these two programs included in H.B. 32 is “equally significant” to the changes made to the Opportunity Scholarship Program.

“The Disability Grant Program has been a godsend for thousands of North Carolina families, but the program’s limitations are apparent,” Stoops said. “Specifically, children with special needs often have educational needs that go far beyond private school tuition and fees. That’s why the sponsors of House Bill 32 included a sensible merger of the Disability Grant with the Education Savings Account programs. The bill would allow participating families to allocate funding for private school tuition, fees, and any number of qualifying educational, therapeutic, and assistive expenses related to the education of a special needs child.”

H.B. 32 is another step lawmakers have taken recently to expand school choice in North Carolina. In September 2020, lawmakers passed a COVID-19 relief bill that included key changes to Opportunity Scholarships, including 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 and earmarked $6.5 million to fund the wait list for the disabilities grant and ESA.

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