By Nyamekye Daniel
North Carolina lawmakers have proposed a bill to expand education access in the state.
House Bill 32, dubbed the Equity in Opportunity Act, would increase funding for school-choice vouchers and allow more students to apply for scholarships.
The bill, currently in the House Committee on Education – K-12, was sponsored by Reps. Dean Arp, R-Union; Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke; Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth; and Jason Saine, R-Lincoln. The sponsors said the legislation would ensure all students receive “a publicly funded education.”
“Right now, vulnerable students receiving a publicly funded education are not able to benefit from their county’s commitments to classroom funding like their peers,” the bill’s sponsors said in a statement. “Our students deserve a policy where their state and local governments can support all of their children equitably.”
The Equity in Opportunity Act would eliminate the current funding cap for North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, increasing flexibility for families seeking a private-school education for their children. The program provides state-funded tuition assistance of up to $4,200 a year for private education for low-income students.
According to Private School Review, the average private school tuition in North Carolina in 2021 is about $9,867 a year. Under the bill, scholarship awards would be based on up to at least 70% of the average state per-pupil allocation in the previous fiscal year.
According to the National Education Association’s (NEA) most-recent data, the average per-pupil spending in North Carolina for the 2019-20 school year was $10,632. If the bill becomes law, low-income students could have access to at least $3,200 more for private school tuition, based on the NEA’s estimates. About 11,259 children were awarded Opportunity Scholarship funding at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, officials said.
The General Assembly approved a measure in September that increased the income threshold to qualify for the scholarship, allowing more students to apply during this school year. The Legislature also removed the cap on the number of new awards distributed to students entering kindergarten and first grade.
HB 32 also would allow students entering school from the second grade to qualify for the scholarship program. Current eligibility guidelines open the applications to kindergarteners and first-graders who didn’t attend a North Carolina public school or Department of Defense school in the previous school semester.
The bill also earmarks $500,000 to increase public awareness of the program through a partnership with nonprofit organizations. It allows counties to supplement funding for students receiving the scholarships and those with education savings accounts under the same funding models for charter and traditional public schools.
HB 32 also would revamp further the funding model for North Carolina’s education savings account program, which provides up to $9,000 a year for students with disabilities to attend a nonpublic school or home school.
Under the bill, the state would have to base the allocation for eligible full-time students on 85% of the average state per-pupil funding in the previous fiscal year in addition to per-pupil special-needs funding.
School choice was packaged with COVID-19 relief in September, and Democrats in the 2019-2020 legislative session pushed for less funding for the opportunity scholarships. A group of North Carolina parents and teachers also sued the state and the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority last summer to end the program.
A Civitas poll released last month showed a majority of North Carolinians support school choice. According to the results, 72% of North Carolinians surveyed said they favor creating education savings accounts, and 66% favor the Opportunity Scholarship Program.
If HB 32 passes the House, it must be approved by the Senate before it is sent to the governor.
Originally published by The Center Square. Republished with permission.