Voucher supporter Rep. Stam hopes to expand program from $10 million to $40 million beginning this fall
Flanked by scores of school children dressed in t-shirts that read “Give Our Kids An Opportunity,” Rep. Paul Stam (R-Wake) told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday that he wants to expand North Carolina’s school voucher program fourfold beginning this fall, which would amount to almost an additional 30 million taxpayer dollars.
Stam said he’d like to see between eight and nine thousand students take advantage of Opportunity Scholarships, which are taxpayer-funded vouchers worth $4,200 annually that students can use toward tuition at private schools. Currently the program allows for about 2,400 students to receive vouchers.
While lawmakers and advocates expressed their hope for the voucher program’s expansion, they did not unveil any legislation Tuesday to that end as they wait for a state Supreme Court ruling that will decide the constitutionality of sending public funds to private schools that are virtually unregulated, beholden to almost no academic or governance standards.
Families, lawmakers take part in pro-voucher rally organized by PEFNC
Prior to Tuesday’s afternoon press conference, pro-voucher group Parents for Educational Freedom North Carolina (PEFNC) organized a morning rally attended by parents, students, private school leaders and lawmakers—including Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham).
“I’m personally committed to not only continuing the [Opportunity Scholarships] program, but expanding it to the extent that we can,” said Sen. Berger to parents, students and school voucher advocates.
Lawmakers enacted a school voucher program in 2013 that pulls approximately $10.8 million dollars away from the public school system to allow students to attend private and religious schools instead.
Proponents of the program say school vouchers are a way to give students better choices when it comes to their education; critics say it siphons badly needed funds away from public education and funnels them into unaccountable, largely religious private schools that are not obligated to hold themselves to high quality teaching standards and free to discriminate in their admissions practices.
The enactment of the Opportunity Scholarships program has prompted a high-profile court battle, resulting in a Superior Court judge finding that the program violates the state’s constitutional mandate to use public funds only for public schools  and an appeals court overturning that ruling, allowing the program to proceed while the state Supreme Court decides its final fate .
High Point Christian Academy’s Rita Haire, Director of Advancement, told rally attendees Tuesday the school voucher program offers access to private education for students who would not otherwise have it thanks to their address or socioeconomic status.
Worth noting, however, is that tuition rates for high school students at High Point Christian Academy are more than double the worth of a school voucher — $9,030 annually. Unclear is the degree to which High Point bridges the gap between the voucher and the cost of tuition for needy families.
Many critics of school vouchers say that high quality private schools’ tuition cost is out of reach for most families – even with a $4,200 school voucher.
Haire said school vouchers provide families with a choice to choose the education that’s best for them.
“In our case, it’s Christian education with a biblical worldview— they’re [students] also denied that in the public schools, but this program gives [families] the opportunity to choose that,” said Haire.
Don Adams, Director of School Advancement for Berean Baptist Academy in Fayetteville also spoke at the rally in support of the school voucher program.
“The ideals that are taught at your school are so important,” said Adams. “Our Christian school is pointing them [the students] to Christ in all things they do and say.”
Adams singled out the thirteen students who attend Berean Baptist with Opportunity Scholarships as thirteen more blessings from God they are responsible to nurture and teach. The school has received nearly $40,000 in taxpayer dollars thanks to the Opportunity Scholarships program.
According to their admissions handbook, students who attend Berean Baptist Academy must adhere to strict admission policies. Applying students must give a clear “testimony of salvation” and the parents and student must be faithful attendees at Berean Baptist Church or a church of similar faith.
Even though private religious schools are now able to accept public dollars, they continue to be free to discriminate in their admissions policies on the basis of race, gender, religious faith, sexual orientation or disability.
Details of voucher expansion
“We’re honored to have these visitors here today, and I think it’s proof positive that the legislation that we’ve adopted is moving in the right direction,” said House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) at Tuesday’s press conference showcasing the parents and students who have received Opportunity Scholarships.
Rep. Stam explained to reporters Tuesday afternoon that an expansion of the school voucher program is on his to do list, with the hope of enabling four times more students than the program currently allows to receive public funds for private school tuition.
“My hope for Opportunity Scholarships is to not change the program at all, but add additional slots from the current level,” said Stam. “We hope to get up to eight or nine thousand [students].”
That increase equates to an additional $30 million taxpayer funds, beyond the current $10 million set aside for the program during the 2014-15 school year.
Stam said he wouldn’t change income eligibility requirements for the Opportunity Scholarships program, which currently allows families who qualify for free and reduced priced lunch to qualify for vouchers.
But Stam noted that the current law already increases the eligibility threshold for those interested in vouchers beginning this fall—which means that now families whose household income is no greater than 133 percent of the free and reduced price lunch guideline can now qualify for school vouchers.
The parents and students that spoke to reporters Tuesday described experiences that prompted them to take advantage of school vouchers, which included instances of bullying and not being fully challenged at their public schools.
Seventh grade student Chase MacLean tearfully asked lawmakers to prevent the demise of the Opportunity Scholarship program.
“I was bullied for standing up against bullying,” said MacLean, who added that she’s learning more now at her private school. Large, overcrowded classes in her public school made it difficult for her to learn, she said.
Darryl Allison, the head of PEFNC, a pro-voucher group that has received millions from the Walton Family Foundation  to push education privatization initiatives in North Carolina, said parents and students came to the General Assembly on Tuesday not to lobby members, but rather to share their experiences.
Allison also said nearly 5,000 new applications for school vouchers for fall 2015 have come in, many of which are from current recipients reapplying for the program.
Disability vouchers also move toward expansion
A smaller-scale school voucher program intended for students who have disabilities that wish to attend private schools with public funds also moved toward expansion Tuesday morning, gaining approval from the House K-12 education committee.
Reps. Jordan (R-Watauga) and Stam introduced HB 133, “Modify Special Education Scholarships .” The bill would increase the amount of the disability school voucher from $6,000 to $8,000 annually and strike a provision that would require students to be enrolled in private schools for at least 75 days before receiving reimbursement from the state for the cost of tuition.
Rep. Graig Meyer (D-Durham, Orange) floated an amendment by lawmakers that would reinstate the 75 day enrollment provision.
“If we eliminate that clause, what is there to stop a student for enrolling in school for two weeks and then leaving the school…and then losing the state’s investment in that scholarship?”
Rep. Stam contended that greater flexibility was needed for students with disabilities who often have more absences than do typical students.
Stam proposed allowing the NC State Educational Assistance Authority to develop rules around pro-rata rebates of voucher funds for students who end up leaving private schools. A compromise to that end was struck between proponents of the law’s expansion and Rep. Meyer, found here .
Rep. Paul Luebke (D-Durham) took the opportunity to express his discontent with special education scholarships that earmark public funds for private schooling.
“Does the [private] school have to have a special education program in place,” queried Luebke of legislative staff, who confirmed the schools do not have to meet that requirement.
“I think that’s a serious problem with the bill,” said Rep. Luebke. “Where are we sending these children with disabilities? It just seems wrong to me.”
“Beyond all of the other details we’ve dealt with today,” added Luebke, “it’s just wrong to send public funds to private schools.”
Questions? Comments? Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or [email protected]