RALEIGH — The N.C. Senate on Wednesday, May 8, sparred over a pair of school choice bills that would expand eligibility for private school vouchers and lift the enrollment cap on virtual charter schools.
Democratic lawmakers argued the two bills devalue public education and harm students. Republican lawmakers said the bills expand educational opportunities for more families across the state.
The two bills, after lengthy debate, passed the Senate, mostly along party lines, and now head to the House.
Senate Bill 609 amends school-choice scholarships, aiming to make them more available to North Carolina students. Under the bill, 4-year-olds would be eligible for the Special Education Scholarships for Children with Disabilities, the Opportunity Scholarship program, and Personal Education Savings accounts.
S.B. 609 raises the household income limit for eligibility to the Opportunity Scholarship program — from 133 percent of the amount required to qualify for the federal free or reduced price lunch — to 150 percent. The bill eliminates a cap on scholarship funds for students entering kindergarten or first grade.
“The Opportunity Scholarship Program is a lifeline for low-income children who otherwise would attend unsatisfactory district schools,” said Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation. “The cap on kindergarten and first-grade students led to unacceptable wait-lists. I am pleased that this bill discards that cap.”
Democratic lawmakers, including freshman Sen. Natasha Marcus, D-Mecklenburg, said the state should reevaluate its commitment to the Opportunity Scholarship program.
Under the bill, Marcus said, the program would expand beyond its original goal of providing low-income students a path to private school. Instead, the bill would allow the Opportunity Scholarship program to provide public dollars to more well-off families to send their children to private schools.
“We will expand eligibility to families who have income well beyond the median income in our state,” Marcus said. “A family of four can have an income over $70,000 and still qualify for a voucher of public money to send their child to private schools.”
Marcus said the bill does nothing to address the problems with private schools, which, the freshman senator says, includes hiring unlicensed teachers, a lack of curriculum requirements, and little financial oversight.
Democratic lawmakers also argued the Opportunity Scholarship was overfunded and that too few parents were participating in the program to justify the money. Republicans countered that expanding eligibility and lifting the cap would solve the problem.
Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, one of the bill’s sponsors, pointed to an N.C. State report that shows the annual median income of households applying for the Opportunity Scholarship program was just more than $16,000.
“We are just trying to allow more of those working families who live on that uncomfortable income level the opportunity to assess and determine the best school options for their students needs,” Ballard said. “I’m not in a position to assume what that best need is, and I think as politicians we should leave that decision to the parents.”
Ballard said the bill addresses concerns from parents over accessibility by expanding eligibility and by lifting the cap on students entering kindergarten and first grade.
S.B. 609 passed the Senate, 27-18 vote, and goes to the House.
The other measure, Senate Bill 522, makes various changes to charter school laws. But the provision that riled lawmakers involved the two virtual charter schools in the state’s virtual charter school pilot program.
Under the bill, the cap on enrollment growth would be lifted on N.C. Virtual Academy and N.C. Connections Academy. The maximum student enrollment in a virtual charter school would be allowed to increase annually by 20 percent.
“This bill brings enrollment regulations for virtual charter schools in line with their brick-and-mortar counterparts,” Stoops said.
Democratic lawmakers had harsh words for the virtual charter schools.
“I believe a better name for this bill would be the rewarding failure act, and that’s because this bill rewards low-performing virtual charter schools,” Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake said.
Sen. Joyce Waddell, D-Mecklenburg, said the state is spreading public education dollars too thin. By allowing virtual charter schools to expand enrollment, she said, the state further dismantles public education.
The state started the virtual charter school pilot program in 2015. Since then, the two schools have been labeled as continuously low-performing. Despite lagging performance, the pilot program for virtual charter schools was extended until the 2022-23 school year. More than 2,000 students are now enrolled in each of the two schools.
N.C. Connections Academy was embroiled in a bitter fight with its educational management organization over disagreements about daily operations. On May 6, the Charter School Advisory Board approved a recommendation to allow N.C. Connections Academy to switch EMOs from Pearson Online and Blended Learning to N.C. for Quality Virtual Education.
While the virtual charters school may not be perfect, proponents say they provide a unique, personalized education for students who don’t perform well in a traditional public school setting.
Sen. Todd Johnson, R-Union, told a story about a student who was bullied and struggled in a traditional public school. His grades started to improve when he transferred to one of the state’s virtual charter schools.
Some students perform better in a traditional classroom, and others excel with virtual instruction, Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell said.
Hise acknowledged that some students aren’t performing well in the virtual charter schools, but said the state shouldn’t do away with them because some families chose a learning environment that wasn’t the best fit for their children.
“How about we leave it to parents to make the choice about what’s the best environment for their children and give options, which include virtual education for them to choose,” Hise said.
S.B. 522 passed, 25-18.