Raleigh, N.C. — Some low-income students would be able to get publicly funded grants to help pay for private school tuition if a bill that cleared the House Education Committee 27-21 Tuesday becomes law.
As currently drafted, the measure would set aside $10 million for 2,000 scholarships in the fiscal year that begins July 1. Another $40 million would let 7,000 more students attend private schools starting July 1, 2014.
Each student would be eligible for a grant of $4,200. According to a report by Parents for Educational Freedom, the average annual private school tuition in North Carolina is $6,235.
School leaders say they know that tuition puts a private education out of reach for some families.
"If they can't afford it, they have no choice," said Dwight Ausely, administrator at Raleigh Christian Academy. "I'm in favor of putting that choice back in the hands of parents."
Opponents of the bill said the pilot would open the door to more public funding of private schools while demanding little accountability from private institutions.
Parent Amy Womble worries the measure, known as the Opportunity Scholarship Act, is mislabeled.
"I think the Opportunity Scholarship Act is really an opportunity for private companies to come in and take public tax dollars from our public schools already struggling with funding," Womble said.
Many of the bill's most vocal supporters are teachers and administrators from schools with religious affiliations and missions, a key point of contention for many of the bill's opponents.
"Just because one believes that a parent has a God-given right to raise his child does not mean one is against public schools," said Rep. Bert Jones, R-Rockingham, responding to criticism that the measure would deplete funding headed to public school classrooms.
"This is an issue of separation between church and state," said Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, who noted that many of the schools that would be eligible to receive public tax money have missions that explicitly call for the religious indoctrination of children.
Other critics of the bill, including Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe, pointed out that the $4,200 voucher would not cover half the cost of tuition at most non-religious schools in the Raleigh area, ticking off a list of schools, including Ravenscroft Academy, that cost $10,000 to $20,000 or more.
"The difference is, of course, private schools get to choose," Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, said. "They get to turn away the (English as a Second Language) kid, they get to turn away the kid who has a discipline problem, they get to turn away the kid who has health care concerns they can't meet."
Ausely said that is not the case, touting the diversity of Raleigh Christian's student population. About 32 percent of the 350 students there are African-American, 10 percent are Hispanic and 9 percent are Asian.
An Opportunity Scholarship, while not covering all of the Raleigh Christian tuition, would give interested families a leg up, Ausley said. The school, through its church congregation, offers scholarships that could help fill the gap.
The measure next goes to the House Appropriations Committee, but its course through the legislature after that is uncertain.
House lawmakers could pass the bill as a stand-alone measure, or they could tuck it into the version of the budget that they began drafting this week. The Senate put several education policy measures in its version of the budget.
If the bill does pass the state House in one form or another, its fate in the Senate is uncertain.
"We've just not talked about it at all," said Sen. Jerry Tilliman, R-Randolph.
The chairman of the Senate Education Committee. Tillman said he was personally "not there yet" on the bill.
"I don't like taking public money and giving it to private schools," he said. He pointed to the state's efforts to expand the number of charter school available in the state. Charter schools, he said, are still public schools.
"When we go into sending money to a private school, that's taking another leap," he said.