As N.C. lawmakers expand school choice options during pandemic, the reaction is mixed

By Keung Hui, The News & Observer

RALEIGH — North Carolina's plan to expand school choice options this year is being praised as a victory for parents by some and condemned by others as draining money from public schools.

Legislation passed by the Republican-led General Assembly last week expands access to voucher programs to attend private schools and lets up to 3,800 more students attend the state's two virtual charter schools. It also includes a $335 stimulus check for parents with children younger than 18 to help offset remote learning costs.

The school choice provisions are part of the "Coronavirus Relief Act 3.0" that includes nearly $1 billion in spending of federal coronavirus aid. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper says he's not happy with the entire bill, but will sign it because the funding for pandemic support is needed.

It was a "very great week for North Carolina families, parents and students," said Mike Long, president of Parents For Educational Freedom in North Carolina.

"Once again, North Carolina remains on the forefront of parental school choice by providing real action in educational opportunities during the COVID-19 pandemic," Long said in a statement last week. "Now, more than ever, families are utilizing more accesses to schools and educational options that are the best fit for their children."

But critics say state lawmakers fell short of ensuring that public school students get their constitutional right to a sound basic education.

"It's a continuation of what we've seen in the past 10 years," Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst with the N.C. Justice Center's Education & Law Project, said in an interview Tuesday. "The General Assembly has used choice as a substitute for quality. They think they can just expand choice options without doing the hard work for helping the 1.4 million kids still in our public schools."

In exchange for school-choice expansion, traditional public schools got some things they wanted like protection from state budget cuts if their enrollment drops this school year. Most school districts began the school year on Aug. 17 using only online classes, after saying it's not yet safe due to COVID-19 to return for face-to-face classes.

More vouchers

The legislation is expected to increase the number of families getting taxpayer funding to attend private K-12 schools. More than $80 million has built up over the years in unspent funds in the Opportunity Scholarship program, which provides up to $4,200 a year to help qualifying families attend private schools.

Lawmakers are increasing the income eligibility limits so that, for instance, a family of four earning $72,000 a year can qualify. Legislators also lifted the cap on the number of kindergarten and first-grade students who can get vouchers.

Eliminating the kindergarten and first-grade caps will allow students on waiting lists to join the program, according to Long. But Nordstrom said more families who always intended to go to private schools will now get voucher money.

"School choice should not be a privilege available only to those who can afford it," Senate leader Phil Berger said in a news release last week. "Parental school choice is a right, and we will fund it."

The changes come as some families, with the support of the N.C. Association of Educators, have filed a lawsuit in state court challenging the constitutionality of the voucher program, the News & Observer previously reported.

Cooper has called for not expanding the voucher program and instead using the unspent $85 million on other needs.

Special needs

Lawmakers also included $6.5 million for the Children with Disabilities Grant Program and the Education Savings Account Program. Republican lawmakers say the additional money will give needed services to nearly 2,500 families who are on waiting lists.

The Children with Disabilities Program provides $4,000 a semester and the Educational Savings Account Program provides $9,000 per year. Both programs can be used for things like tuition, tutoring and additional curriculum.

The funding was pushed by Sen. Joyce Krawiec, a Republican from Forsyth County, who said that families of special-needs students have told her that their children "feel lost in the shuffle of moving to remote education." She cited the case of Matthew, a student who has autism.

"For students like Matthew, remote learning just doesn't cut it," Krawiec said in a news release last week. "His parents can see him regressing before their eyes. It broke my heart to know their pleas went unanswered."

But the changes to the voucher programs will "divert funding away from public schools," the Public School Forum of North Carolina said in a statement last week. The group also said the changes are "likely to hinder the state's ability to meet its constitutional obligation to ensure every child in North Carolina has access to a sound basic education."

Virtual charters

Republican lawmakers also reversed the decision of the State Board of Education to bar the state's two virtual charter schools from going past their enrollment limits this year. A majority of board members had cited how both the N.C. Virtual Academy and the N.C. Cyber Academy have been classified as low-performing since they opened in 2015.

But supporters of expansion said families deserve the option to pick a virtual program from an experienced provider over the new programs that brick-and-mortar schools created this year.

The school choice changes were hailed by the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, which said in Thursday's edition that it hopes more states follow North Carolina's lead.

"North Carolina's decision comes as COVID-19 has exposed the union-first, students-last priorities of traditional public schools," The Wall Street Journal said in the editorial. "Many union schools refuse to return to in-person learning, while charters and private schools are doing so. Parents worried about their children falling behind are learning that the union schools' take-it-or-leave-it approach leaves them without options."

But advocates of traditional public schools have been equally vocal in expressing their disappointment in the legislature for not acting on the State Board of Education's plan to comply with the Leandro court case.

The plan includes $427 million in new state funding this year as part of an eight-year plan to provide every child with a sound basic education. Last week, Republican lawmakers criticized Superior Court Judge David Lee for signing a consent order approving the state plan without meeting with legislators first.

But Every Child NC and the Public School Forum say lawmakers should have adopted the state's plan.

"The lack of moral and political courage from North Carolina's state leaders has once again left parents, teachers, and students in the lurch," Every Child NC said in a statement last week.