Lack of a budget deal on private school vouchers leaves NC families angry and in limbo

By T. Keung Hei

July 3, 2024

Thousands of North Carolina parents are uncertain where their children will attend classes this fall after Republican lawmakers were unable to agree on a deal to increase private school voucher funding.

State lawmakers adjourned last week without approving new funding to clear a waiting list of 55,000 students who want an Opportunity Scholarship. Now, families are weighing whether they can still afford to attend a private school without state funding to help cover their tuition costs.

“We voted them in with the promise they’d give a free education to all, and it hasn’t happened,” said Kathy Whitehill, a parent from Charlotte whose daughter is on the state waiting list. “Seventy-two thousand families applied this year. That should show how many families want it.”

The lack of action so close to the start of the new school year has put families and schools in a bind, according to Mike Long, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. “It’s looking very bleak for those families who are on the waiting lists,” Long said. “Even if they come back in September as the Speaker (Tim Moore) has suggested, that’s too late for parents. Schools have to move on.”


One group who is happy are public school supporters who have opposed expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship program.


The General Assembly lifted the income eligibility limits this year, resulting in a record 71,956 new applications for an Opportunity Scholarship. It’s unknown how many of those applicants are new vs. existing private school students.

The N.C. State Education Assistance Authority says it only has enough money to issue 15,805 scholarships. Priority was given to applicants with the lowest incomes. The high demand led GOP leaders, who have a veto-proof legislative majority, to publicly pledge to increase funding to clear the backlog.

In May, the Senate passed a standalone bill to provide $463.5 million in additional voucher funding over the next two years. In June, the House and Senate passed separate budget bills that included the $463.5 million.

Senate leader Phil Berger told reporters the Senate also unsuccessfully offered to the House to include the voucher funding in bills that were being voted on Thursday. Berger said he was “disappointed” in the House. “I think folks need to ask them why it’s not funded, because we have tried every way that we know how,” Berger said.

The additional Opportunity Scholarship funding is such a large amount that Speaker Moore said House Republicans wanted it included in the state budget along with bigger raises for public school teachers. The Senate has not agreed to the teacher raises proposed by the House.

“The concern that members have had is that they want to make sure that if we’re talking about education, that we’re doing so comprehensively, that we’re also addressing the traditional schools as well,” Moore told reporters last week.


The experience has left some families feeling betrayed.

“We’ve felt like a ping-pong ball because there have been promises that haven’t been met,” said Whitehill, the Charlotte parent.

Samantha Holland said some families might have made a different decision if legislators hadn’t promised to provide more funding. She’s going to pay to send her daughter to kindergarten at a private school in Raleigh because classes are starting July 15.

“Back in March when there was clearly not enough funding, the House and Senate were basically promising we would get some sort of funding,” said Holland, who is on the waiting list. “For me personally, it’s just frustrating to have something dangled and be uncertain where your kid is going.”

Long of PEFNC said the situation could have been avoided if the House had approved the Senate’s standalone bill.

“Given the historic demand for the programs and the perceived commitment from the General Assembly, it is a head scratcher as to why this was not more of a priority this session for the key decision makers,” Long said.

Some parents said lawmakers should have at least fully funded all the applicants from Tier 2, a group that would have qualified in previous years. A family of four in this category makes between $57,720 and $115,440 a year. Tier 2 applicants account for 30% of the wait list. The other 70% applicants on the wait list wouldn’t have qualified before the income rules were lifted.

“People that are making $58,000 didn’t get the scholarship, which is insane to me,” said Whitehill, the Charlotte parent.


Moore said both chambers will continue to negotiate on the voucher funding. The N.C. Values Coalition sent an email Tuesday asking its supporters to urge lawmakers to “make good on their promises to fund the Opportunity Scholarship.”

“If the NC General Assembly doesn’t agree to a budget, that means these families will continue to be stuck in academic limbo,” according to the N.C. Values Coalition. “Worse, their children may get stuck in woke, failing, or dangerous schools.”

But Long said PEFNC is already hearing from parents on the wait list who say they’ll have to abandon their plans to attend a private school this fall. “We are just hearing from so many families that wanted to make the change but who could not,” Long said.

Whitehill said she and her husband are looking at whether they take on an extra job to help pay for their daughter to attend kindergarten at a private school in Concord. They had started setting money aside to cover tuition but Whitehill said that fund was wiped out when they had to repair water damage from a busted pipe.

“We are not people asking for a handout,” Whitehill said. “We are working very hard.”

Amber Brown, a friend of Whitehill, is wrestling with how she and her husband can send their son to kindergarten at that same private school in Concord. The Huntersville family is looking at taking extra jobs and dipping into their savings because they’re not counting on lawmakers to reach a funding deal this year.

“We’re paying a lot of taxes,” Brown said. “We want public schools to do well. But how great would it be for our son to have a choice as well and have some of our money go there.”