Choose Your School, Choose Your Future legislation proposed in House

By Victor Skinner

April 20, 2023

(The Center Square) – All North Carolina students could become eligible for the Opportunity Scholarship Program under new legislation sponsored by Republican House Speaker Tim Moore and Rep. Tricia Cotham.

Opportunity Scholarships that currently help low- and moderate-income families cover private school tuition would expand to all students through an income-based tiered system under House Bill 823, titled Choose Your School, Choose Your Future.

The legislation is sponsored by top House Republicans including Moore, of Cleveland County, as well as Cotham, formally a Mecklenburg Democrat who switched her party affiliation to join the majority last week. An identical Senate Bill 406 was introduced last month by Sens. Michael Lee of New Hanover County and Amy Galey of Alamance County, co-chairmen of the Senate Education Committee.

Mike Long, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, described the legislation as “an incredible step toward funding students over systems in North Carolina.”

The bill “will further empower families to place their tax dollars into their child’s backpack allowing them to attend the school of their choice,” he said. “HB823, like the bill’s companion in the Senate, also prioritizes lower-income families to receive the most scholarship assistance.”

The North Carolina Association of Educators has opposed the Opportunity Scholarship Program from its inception, most recently in a lawsuit brought by NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly against leaders in the General Assembly that challenged the constitutionality of the program. The lawsuit took issue with religious schools receiving state funds.

Kelly filed a notice of voluntary dismissal in that case with Wake County Superior Court on Wednesday. The filing comes about six months after the state Court of Appeals ruled the case must be heard by a three-judge panel due to the constitutional challenge involved.

The program, which helps more than 25,000 students attend 544 private schools, was upheld as constitutional by the North Carolina Supreme Court in 2015.

HB823 would expand Opportunity Scholarships to all students in the state, while giving households earning $55,500 or less per year first priority. Households with annual incomes at $111,000 or less would get second priority, while those with incomes of $249,750 or less would get third priority. Households with earning above $249,750 would be eligible for any remaining funds.

The scholarships, which are worth up to about $7,400, would be available at 100% for first priority families, 90% for second priority, 60% for third priority, and 45% for those earning more than $249,750.

HB823 would allocate $121 million from the General Fund in addition to the $191 million slated to be allocated for fiscal year 2024-25. The bill would also increase scheduled allocations for the program from $206.5 million to $366.5 million in 2025-26, from $221.5 million to $419.5 million in 2026-27, and from $236.5 million to $434.5 million in 2027-28.

The increased allocations would continue through 2032-33, when it would reach $509.5 million.

The changes would take effect on June 30 and apply to applications for scholarships beginning next school year.

HB823 was referred to the House Education Committee on Wednesday, while SB406 is in the Senate Education Committee.