More low-income families will be able to send their children to private schools using public money if the state budget wins final approval.
The budget would expand the “Opportunity Scholarships,” which were first approved in 2013 and survived a legal challenge all the way to the state Supreme Court. So far this school year, more than 2,600 have been awarded, but the number could rise to 6,000 next year.
The state budget would grow the program from $10.8 million now to $17.6 million in 2015-16 and $24.8 million in 2016-17.
The scholarships provide as much as $4,200 annually in public dollars to low-income families who want to send a child to a private school. Last school year, a family of four was eligible if its income was less than $43,568.
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On Tuesday, a school choice group called Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina applauded the expansion. Darrell Allison, president of the group, said there are 3,000 children on the waiting list for the scholarships.
“Undoubtedly, this is a major win for the thousands of low-income families who’ve desired this program with over 12,000 applications that have flooded in over the last two years,” Allison said in a statement.
The budget would also increase the annual amount of the vouchers for disabled children to $8,000.
Allison called the expansion part of “complementary educational packages intended to rightly serve every child in North Carolina regardless of their geographic location, income status or the school they ultimately choose.”
But the state’s teacher association said the move was a damaging one for North Carolina. Rodney Ellis, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, issued a statement saying the expansion “harms students by draining even more money away from public schools and into a private voucher scheme, which continues a strategic dismantling of public education by some in the General Assembly.”
Ellis further said the education budget relegates North Carolina to “the back of the pack.”
Besides continuing funding for teacher assistants ($138 million) and driver’s education ($24 million), the budget this year would:
▪ Increase funding by $22 million for textbooks and digital resources.
▪ Spend $2 million to bring broadband connectivity to schools.
▪ Provide an additional $20 million to send struggling first- and second-graders to reading camps.
▪ Cut the state Department of Public Instruction by 5.2 percent, or $2.5 million.