Private school voucher bill wins approval of key committee in North Carolina legislature

The Charlotte Observer reports that North Carolina’s House Education Committee has approved a bill, in a 27-21 vote, to provide taxpayer money for low-income children to attend private schools.  The vote represents a significant victory for lawmakers who support what they call “opportunity scholarships,” operators of private and religious schools, and parents who want to remove children from public schools.  Supporters have been working for years on a way to provide tuition assistance for K-12 parents through vouchers or tax credits.

The committee’s vote gives the plan to have taxpayer money pay for private K-12 schools momentum it has never before had in the state.  The bill would spend $50 million over two years on vouchers, $10 million in the next school year to send 2,000 students and $40 million for the following year for an additional 7,000 students.  The program is limited in its first year to students who qualify for the national school lunch program. For a family of three, that’s $36,131.  In the second year, it expands to families earning up to 133 percent of that income level.

However, the measure still needs to get through at least one more House committee and win approval from the full House and Senate.

A dozen states and Washington, D.C., have voucher programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.  Eight states offer vouchers to special needs students, and four states and Washington offer them to low-income students or students from failing public schools.

Researchers don’t agree whether voucher recipients do better in school.  But the issue exposes acrimony between those who say vouchers open more choices to parents and those who say vouchers will siphon taxpayer money from public schools.  “I would suggest that parents have a God-given right” to determine what their children need, said Rep. Bert Jones.  Rep. Chris Whitmire, on the other hand, says the rural western counties he represents offer few options for affordable private education, while public schools in his district are producing stellar results on little money.

Though $4,200 wouldn’t go very far toward tuition at some of the state’s best-known private schools, voucher supporters have spent a lot of time arguing that the money would put private education within reach for those who want to attend church schools.  The state has 698 private schools, with religious schools attracting more than two-thirds of the private-school enrollment. Church-affiliated schools have been among the measure’s most prominent backers.

Rep. Alma Adams said she supports parental choice, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of public schools.  State per-pupil spending has fallen relative to other states, and public school supporters don’t want to further erode K-12 budgets.  “This money will diminish what we can do for funding our public schools,” Adams said.  “It ultimately will dismantle public schools, and that’s really the underlying motive here.”

Source: Charlotte Observer, 5/28/13, By Lynn Bonner

[Editor’s Note: 2013 has seen mixed results in rulings on voucher programs.  In March 2013, Legal Clips summarized a decision by the Indiana Supreme Court in Meredith v. Pence holding that the state’s private school voucher law, the “Choice Scholarship Program” (CSP), passed muster under the state constitution.  The state supreme court concluded that the CSP, which allows disadvantaged Indiana primary and secondary school students to receive scholarships to attend private schools or public schools, did not violate the education funding or religion clauses in the Indiana Constitution.

In May 2013, Legal Clips summarized a decision by the Louisiana Supreme Court in Louisiana Federation of Teachers v. State holding that the state’s private school voucher program violates the state constitution.]

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