*originally published by the Charlotte Observer
As North Carolinians wait for state legislators to wrap up their vacations and pass an overdue state budget, details on what to expect are beginning to emerge.
According to House Speaker Tim Moore, proposed expansion of the state’s controversial school voucher program “will be part of the final budget agreement.”
Assuming no major changes to voucher bills filed earlier this session, the legislation will triple funding for school vouchers as well as eliminating income eligibility requirements so that any student in the state–regardless of financial need–may use public money to attend private schools.
In effect, that means North Carolinians will now be forced to subsidize the tuition of wealthy students who already attend private school. Republican State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt recently acknowledged that fact, saying the Department of Public Instruction expects most vouchers to be taken by families whose children do not currently attend public schools.
(Side note: Thus far Superintendent Truitt has NOT lived up to her campaign promise to oppose voucher expansion if elected)
Opportunity Scholarship was first implemented in school year 2014-15 and doled out a mere $4.6 million in taxpayer funds that year. School year 2022-23 saw nearly $134 million distributed, the vast majority to private schools. The new legislation would take that figure north of a half a billion dollars a year by school year 2032-33.
You’d think the self-styled party of fiscal responsibility would want to ensure that taxpayers are getting a good return on an investment of more than a half a billion dollars a year.
You’d be wrong.
Republican legislators have created the country’s least accountable voucher system in North Carolina. Not only do voucher-accepting schools have no requirements for teacher licenses, accreditation or standard curriculum, but these schools have no requirement to participate in the state’s end of year testing program. That means we have no way of knowing whether any student who has left a traditional public school for a voucher school is getting better academic outcomes or not.
Republicans’ anything-goes approach to voucher management means abundant opportunities for fraud by unscrupulous, profit-driven actors, and the school privatization space is filled with them.
A recent comparison of student enrollment with voucher funds disbursement by North Carolina Justice Center policy analyst Kris Nordstrom found evidence of private schools claiming more vouchers than they had students, and the State Bureau of Investigation is now investigating the matter. Inquiries to the General Assembly’s most pro-voucher legislators (including former Mecklenburg County’s infamous former Democrat Tricia Cotham) about how they will protect taxpayers from such fraud in the future have been met with cricket noises.
In addition to problems with lack of accountability and potential for fraud, expansion of vouchers means less available funding for the traditional public schools that serve the vast majority of the state’s students. Hundreds of millions of dollars a year is a lot of money to divert away from public schools at a time when those schools are struggling to staff up and to provide students with the resources they need to learn.
The North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management estimates the changes will directly deprive public schools of more than $200 million per year by school year 2026-27. Those cuts will be felt most deeply by the state’s rural districts:
It’s anyone’s guess when the state budget will be presented to the public, although some signs point to next month. That leaves time for you to contact your legislators and express your views on voucher expansion or any other legislative matter that concerns you.
You can find contact information for members of the General Assembly below: