Senate leader: If NC private school voucher money is going unspent, loosen the rules

Facing calls to rein in public spending for private school tuition, North Carolina Senate leader Phil Berger came to Charlotte on Thursday to celebrate school choice and advocate for the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program.

“Parents deserve to have the ability to choose the learning environment that’s best for their kids,” the Eden Republican said in a news conference at The Male Leadership Academy of Charlotte, a Christian school that received almost $45,000 in public money last year.

Opportunity Scholarships, approved in 2013, provide up to $4,200 a year to help low-income parents send their children to private schools. The program has never used all the money allocated, leaving millions unspent each year, but a spending plan approved in 2017 calls for increasing the budget by $10 million a year through 2027, the Observer recently reported.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board voted in January to ask the state to stop expanding the voucher fund, and Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who chairs the House Education Appropriations Committee, told the Observer he supports “right-sizing” the Opportunity Scholarship Fund so money doesn’t go unspent.

Berger said Thursday that a budget amendment to scale back on voucher spending was defeated on a bipartisan vote Wednesday.

“We’ve got substantial demand,” Berger said. “I think the growth that’s currently built into the program is something that we don’t need to go backwards on.”

Although he acknowledged that there haven’t been enough eligible applicants to claim all the money budgeted, he said that’s not a reason to rein in spending. “I think it’s reason to maybe modify the rules,” he said. For instance, the current rules limit the number of students who can receive the scholarships by grade level.

“That’s the reason that you’re seeing some go unused,” Berger said. “What we need to do is open the rules up so that folks who are on the waiting list ... can actually take advantage of the program. I can tell you that there is not a lack of demand for the scholarships that are out there.”

Berger’s news conference included former state senator and Charlotte mayoral candidate Joel Ford, a Democrat who said he initially opposed the scholarship program but now serves on the board of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, a school choice advocacy group. Janet Nunn, whose granddaughter, 9-year-old Nariah Hunter, attends Victory Christian Center School on an Opportunity Scholarship, said attending the private school has helped her daughter thrive academically and socially.

“Today she’s a straight A student and I’m forever grateful that,” Nunn said as Nariah looked on, beaming. Nunn and Nariah were profiled in the Observer in 2016, when Nariah was in first grade at the private school.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education for the Observer since 2002, long enough to watch a generation of kids go from preK to college. She is a repeat winner of the North Carolina Press Association’s education reporting award.