Raleigh, N.C. — Supporters of state-funded private school vouchers gathered in front of the Legislative Building on Tuesday to urge lawmakers to add funding to the high-demand program, which they say gives low-income families a say in their children’s education.
The “Opportunity Scholarship” program, passed by the General Assembly last year, gives annual grants of up to $4,200 to families that want to send their children to private schools, including religious institutions.Advocates say the vouchers allow low-income children to attend schools that meet their individual needs when public schools fail to do so.
“Nearly 75 percent of the applications that flooded into North Carolina were (those) of minority families,” said Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. “You have parents who are in desperate need of finding an option that’s going to work for their child.”
Allison cited low end-of-grade test scores among poor North Carolina students – a sign, he said, that public school classrooms stifle many low-income students’ success.
Casey Cooper said her special-needs son needs a smaller classroom than the one offered in his Statesville public school.
"When he’s in a regular classroom setting, he’s lost because the teacher cannot give him the time that is needed for him to be able to understand the lessons given to him," Cooper said.
More than 5,500 families applied for the program before a judge issued an injunction in February, stalling the application process. The state Supreme Court lifted the injunction last month.
The state will distribute the 2,400 available vouchers through a lottery next Wednesday, but advocates said Tuesday that several families are still scrambling for slots that the state lacks money to fill.
“We had nearly double that in terms of demand,” Allison said. “We’re talking about making sure … at the end of the day, it won’t be the luck of a bouncing lottery ball.”
The state set aside $10 million for the program, and Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam, R-Wake, said House leaders hope to shift the budget around to find another $7 million to $8 million to fund the roughly 2,000 eligible applicants whose spots were left in limbo by the injunction.
“It’s a very small amount,” Stam said of the amount needed to fill the gap, relative to the $21 billion budget. “Plus, the average student who moves from public to private school saves the state about $1,000. You don’t really have to find the money, because you’re actually relieving the state of an expense.”
Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, the Senate’s chief education budget writer, said he also wants to find room in the final spending plan to cover the program’s extra seats.
“I feel obligated to try to work towards that,” Tillman said. “I don’t know where it’s going to come from yet, but I’m pledging to do what I can to help with that.”
House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger joined voucher advocates at a news conference in support of the program.
“This is about giving parents an opportunity to put their child in a setting that helps ensure that they realize their hopes and dreams,” said Tillis, R-Mecklenburg.
Rodney Ellis, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, called it "reckless" to add money to a program that his group is still challenging in court.
"They haven’t come up with funding to provide teachers with salary increases, which is a big issue right now. If they can’t do that, I don’t see how they can allocate for something else like vouchers," Ellis said. "Our system is already struggling to meet the demands of our students right now, and to begin to siphon off resources and sending children to private schools with public dollars is unconstitutional."
Civil rights leader Howard Fuller, a vocal advocate of voucher programs nationwide, called the program a 2014 fight for social justice. He said the vouchers allow low-income students to succeed in the long term and give parents more power over children’s education.
“The reality is, we should not have an America where only those of us with money have the ability to choose the best educational environment for our children,” Fuller said. “We do know this: If we do not educate our children, there is another public institution waiting for them, and it’s called prison.”