This story originally published online at NC Policy Watch. 

State lawmakers may regret the decision to stuff millions of additional dollars into the state’s underutilized school voucher program, Rep. Rachel Hunt warned last week.

The Mecklenburg County Democrat said the feeling of remorse will likely come over them in August when school districts across the state are scrambling to fill what some experts believe will be a record number of teacher vacancies across North Carolina.

“When we come up next year with a huge depletion of teachers and our children do not have teachers in their classrooms, I want us to think about how we chose not to spend the money on those issues, and we instead spent more money on a program that is not being used completely,” Hunt said.

About 7.2 % of the state’s teachers and professional support staff such as social workers, school counselors and psychologists who responded to the North Carolina Teaching Working Conditions Survey in the spring said they plan to change professions this year. That’s almost twice the 4% that generally say they plan to quit each year.

“Our children need well-paid teachers; we need nurses; we need school social workers; we need counselors and we don’t have the money; except we do have the money,” Hunt said. “We’re just choosing not to spend it that way.”

Hunt made her comment last week as the House debated a $27.9 budget bill that includes a $56 million increase in funding for the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program. The bill was approved by the House and the Senate sent to Gov. Roy Cooper for his review. Cooper has until July 11 to sign or veto the bill. If he fails to act it will become law.

While the bill provides an average pay raise of around 4% to the state’s public school teachers, critics note that this increase falls well short of the recent rate of inflation.

Funding increase advances despite underuse

If the bill becomes law, funding for the voucher program would grow from $120.54 million to $176.54 million for the 2023-2024 school year, and eventually reach $311.54 million per year. In 2021, the research and advocacy group Public Schools First NC reported that the state was committed to spending more than $3.1 billion on the voucher program over the next 15 years.

Only $79.38 million of about $85 million in available funding, however, was spent on the program last school year. The money went to 20,377 students enrolled in 503 nonpublic schools.

Hunt questioned colleagues about the need to increase voucher funding when chunks of funding are regularly left on the table.

“Our understanding is that it’s never been depleted in a year, and we have many, many needs in education in North Carolina,” Hunt said.

Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, a Republican from Wilkes County who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, countered that a healthy reserve is needed to keep the program going from year to year because the academic year and fiscal year do not start at the same time.

Elmore said the number of Opportunity Scholarship students is expected to grow, according to the NC State Education Assistance Authority, the agency that manages the program.

He stated that there was a 20% increase in the number of students using the program during the last school year.

“In 2022-23 we expect a similar increase of around 28% — [to] 26,063 [students],” Elmore said.

A decade of controversy

As the name indicates, the Opportunity Scholarship Program was created in 2013 for the stated purpose of helping low-income families send children to private schools and religious schools. Conservative lawmakers who back the program argue that parents deserve to send their children to schools that meet their needs.

“School choice shouldn’t be a privilege reserved only for the wealthy,” Sen. Amy Galey, a Republican from Alamance County, said last year when the GOP backed a bill to expand income eligibility for the program. “All children, regardless of their financial circumstances, deserve the opportunity to attend the school that’s best for them.”

Voucher critics counter that such programs drain valuable financial resources from public schools and that there’s little evidence that private or religious schools offer a higher quality of education than their public counterparts. Critics have also noted that there is little academic or financial accountability at many voucher schools schools, and that some discriminate against LGBTQ parents and children and feature religion-based curricula that contradict modern science.

Despite the program’s purported purpose, more affluent families have gained access to vouchers in recent years as lawmakers have stretched income eligibility. A family of four with an annual income of $85,000 is now eligible to receive a voucher and the proposed budget bill would up that amount to $103,000. And the guidelines have been changed to make the vouchers worth more than $6,000 a year. They had been worth $4,200.

The proposal to allocate more money to the controversial program comes as lawmakers and progressive education leaders are criticizing the $27.9 billion budget bill sent to Cooper. The state’s adjusted spending plan, many argue, falls $443 million short of what is recommended in the Leandro plan that grew out of the state’s long-running school funding lawsuit.

Leandro v. State of North Carolina was brought in 1994 by five school districts in low-wealth counties that argued their districts did not have enough money to provide children a quality education.

“This decades-long pattern of contempt for the Leandro decision and for public schools is alarming,” said Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the NC Association of Educators. “The state constitution empowers the courts to act when other branches of government fail to carry out their constitutional obligations, and the time is now to secure an order from the highest court in North Carolina requiring the General Assembly to do their job and fully fund Leandro.”

School privatization continues apace

For those keeping score, the voucher program’s growth provides a clear picture into the gains the school choice movement has made in North Carolina over time. In addition, the number of charter schools has more than doubled since lawmakers lifted the 100-school cap in 2011.

Meanwhile, a recent report by the state Division of Non-Public Education shows enrollment in private schools has grown by nearly 8,000 students, an increase that is linked to changes in the voucher program that allows more affluent families to qualify for tax money to send children to private schools. North Carolina now has 115,311 students attending private school, a 7.4% increase from the previous year, Raleigh’s News & Observer reported.

The movement has also gained clout at the NC Department of Public Instruction. In state Superintendent Catherine Truitt’s new Parental Advisory Commission, half of the 48-member panel is made up of traditional public school parents and the other half is comprised of parents who homeschool their children or send them to private schools and public charter schools.

The makeup of the panel has been criticized in some quarters because it gives parents of nonpublic school students a disproportionate voice on the panel. Last year, roughly 76% of K-12 students still attended traditional public schools.

Truitt contends nonpublic parents are needed on the panel to help the state to improve its system of education.

“This commission seeks to include all parent voices because every parent has a story to tell,” Truitt said. “Insight from parents who may not have a student presently enrolled in a traditional public school should be considered as we strive to make improvements to support all public school students’ learning and development.”

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