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H.B. 823 proposes scholarship program for school choice vouchers across income levels


The North Carolina Legislative Building, photographed on Monday April 24, 2023.

House Bill 823 — which passed the N.C. House in May and is currently in the N.C. Senate Rules Committee — would expand the Opportunity Scholarship Program by removing income eligibility requirements and allocating up to $500 million per year for private school vouchers by 2032.

The bill is sponsored by some of the most prominent Republicans in the General Assembly, including N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland, Rutherford) and N.C. Rep. Tricia Cotham (R-Mecklenburg).

The Opportunity Scholarship Program provides scholarships for North Carolina students to attend private schools.

“Private education has always been an option for families in North Carolina — if they have the means to afford it,” Brian Jodice, the executive vice president for Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said.

This year, the average private school yearly tuition is $9,637 in North Carolina, but it can be as low as $1,850 and as high as $57,650 in different schools statewide.

N.C. Rep. Allen Buansi (D-Orange) said the funds that would be used for the program could be better used to fund public education in North Carolina.

“It's not a good bill,” he said. "It takes away even more money from our public schools.”

June Atkinson, former North Carolina superintendent of public instruction, said that the amount of money the voucher provides is based on per-pupil expenditure in public schools. The maximum award is $6,492.

“Many of the private schools, especially those with excellent reputations, charge much, much more,” she said. “So how can a child or how can a parent afford to send a child to a private school?”

Though the bill mandates some testing for private schools accepting opportunity scholarships, Atkinson said private schools can choose their own tests and set their own passing scores.

“You have no measure to determine how students in private schools are doing as compared to public schools,” Atkinson said. “And I find it very frustrating that people who want the choice facade bill to pass are always quoting how public schools are failing students.”

Bryan Proffitt, the vice president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, said a lack of accountability also allows private schools to reject students based on criteria such as their parents' beliefs, identities, appearance or specific needs.

“They don't have to accept every student,” he said. “They don't have to provide resources. They can actually and actively discriminate.”

Though private schools that receive federal funding cannot legally discriminate against students based on race, sex or disability, those without federal funding have no such requirements — except for race-based discrimination.

About 43.7 percent of students attending North Carolinian public schools are white, while 78 percent of private school students are white.

Atkinson said, despite the budget surplus and claims to the contrary, the bill diverts funds from public schools — funds she said could be better used to enhance public schools. The budget passed by the N.C. Senate on May 18 allocates $13.2 billion over the next fiscal year towards K-12 education, a 2.2 percent decrease from the 2022-23 fiscal year.

Jodice said the language used to criticize school choice — especially the focus on taking away money from public schools — is divisive and takes away focus from the needs of students. 

“We’re funding students, not an educational system,” he said.

In November 2022, the N.C. Supreme Court ruled in the long-standing Leandro case that the state legislature was failing to meet its constitutional obligations to provide students with a sound basic education. The Court ordered the General Assembly to comply with the Leandro plan, which would require $5.5 billion more in yearly education funding by 2028.

On April 14, a state superior court judge ruled that the State still owes $677.8 million for 2022 and 2023 based on the November 2022 decision. But, the N.C. Supreme Court began accepting new filings in the case in March, and more decisions could be handed down by the new Republican majority on the court.

“We basically need to double the amount of resources that go into our schools,” Proffitt said.

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From 2008 to 2020, inflation-adjusted funding for public schools in North Carolina dropped by 11 percent, leaving the state ranked last nationwide in "funding effort" — the amount of funding going to education relative to the state’s economy.

Proffitt said the public schools are already struggling with chronic underfunding, which the proposed bill would exacerbate, reducing resources and making it harder to meet student needs.

“Our kids deserve better than this,” he said.


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