Raleigh, N.C. — The state House budget committee narrowly defeated a proposal Tuesday morning that would have expanded the state's voucher program for kindergarten and first-grade students.
Under current law, only 35 percent of the state's "Opportunity Scholarships" can go to kindergarten and first-grade students. That limit was put into the original legislation to limit future program growth, since students who have vouchers in a given year are first in line for renewal the next year. Students who begin in kindergarten could receive vouchers for all 12 years of their primary and secondary education.
The bill, a proposed committee substitute for Senate Bill 456, would have increased that percentage from 35 percent to 45 percent. Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, said the program has had "way more applicants for K-1 than they can handle under the existing limitation that it be no more than 35 percent."
Stam said he was informed by the State Education Assistance Authority that the program might not be able to spend all of its funds this year and that families with multiple children might be able to get vouchers for older students but not for their younger siblings.
The measure wouldn't cost any additional money, he said, pointing out that lawmakers had already agreed to increase voucher funding from $17 million this school year to $24 million next year. The purpose, he said, is "just to let a few more little tykes, little kindergartners, into the system with their brothers and sisters."
But Rep. Bryan Holloway, R-Stokes, and other committee members pointed out that the change would increase the program's funding needs in future years.
"What this bill is going to do, it’s going to create a backlog for next year for Opportunity Scholarships. They’re going to come back and tell you they don’t have enough money," Holloway said. "We don’t even know if this program is working or not.
"They got a substantial increase (in funding). Why not just move forward, come back next year, see these kids' test scores?" he added. "Look at the data. Look at the schools these kids pick. Let’s look at the data before we do this."
"This specific program was set up for children that are attending schools that have demonstrated they can’t serve that child," agreed Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange. "It destroys the entire purpose of this whole program if we’re going to let kids in in K-1 when local schools may be fine."
"I think its good to get kids in" in early grades, countered Rep. Rob Bryan, R-Mecklenburg. "This is trying to let parents have the best choice for their kids."
Rep. Dennis Riddell, R-Alamance, agreed. "We’re not increasing the money. We’re simply making available the money that has been budgeted," he said.
After a call for a show of hands on the vote, the proposal failed to receive a favorable report by a 24-26 vote. Since it did not receive an unfavorable vote, it is not dead for the session, but is unlikely to emerge again before short session next April.