Republican leaders celebrate school choice and expansion of private vouchers

By Liz Bell

January 24, 2024

Legislative leaders and private school educators, parents, and students celebrated National School Choice Week and the expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship program in last year’s budget at a rally at the legislature Wednesday.

Applications for the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program, which provides state-funded vouchers for students to attend private schools, are set to open next week as Gov. Roy Cooper calls for a moratorium on the program.

Following Cooper’s declaration on Tuesday of 2024 as the “Year of Public Schools,” Republican legislative and state leaders at the rally lifted up the importance of parental choice in their children’s education.

Cooper, a Democrat, called for the suspension of private vouchers until public schools are “fully funded” on Tuesday. Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said Wednesday the program will start accepting applications next week for the 2024-25 school year without income eligibility requirements, which were removed in last year’s budget.

“For the first time in state history, every family in North Carolina will be able to apply for an Opportunity Scholarship,” Berger said at the rally, which was organized by Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, a nonprofit that advocates for school choice. “We are ensuring that every family has an option, every parent has an option, when it comes to their child’s K-12 education.”

Last year’s budget allocated an additional $250 million over the next two years for the program, bringing the total state spending to $618 million for the biennium. The budget ramps up funding for the program in the following years, adding a total of $4.4 billion over the next decade.

“Parents should not be restricted by their zip code and certainly should not be restricted by their income when it comes to educating their kids,” Berger said.

Public school advocates are concerned the expansion of vouchers will drain public schools, which are funded based on enrollment, of resources they need to serve children.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt on Wednesday said public schools are one of many options parents should consider.

“Being pro-school choice does not conflict with being pro-public schools,” Truitt said. “It is natural for parents to want choice when it comes to their child. And while the vast majority of parents are happy with their neighborhood public school, the vast majority of parents say they want choice.”

Truitt mentioned choosing to live in a certain zip code so that her own children would go to that neighborhood’s traditional public schools.

“While as state superintendent, I want our public schools to be the best public schools we can possibly have,” she said, “I also know as a parent that the best public school is not always the best choice for a child.”

Some of the school leaders, educators, parents, and students in attendance drove from outside the Triangle for the rally.

“We’re here to prove that parents have a choice,” said Amy Sparks, co-founder and principal of School of Hope in Fayetteville, a private nonprofit specializing in educating children on the autism spectrum. “They need a voice. And without a voice, a lot of our children would go through the cracks.”

Sparks said at least 95% of the children who attend the school receive Opportunity Scholarships or funds from the Education Student Accounts program for children with disabilities to access specialized supports.

Sparks said she is expecting that more funding for vouchers will allow the school, which operates a waitlist, to serve more children.

Dominque Burgess, head of schools for Burbrella Learning Academy, Inc., a network of private “microschools,” said every student in the network’s Burlington location is attending through an Opportunity Scholarship.

“We want parents to be educated on their options for their children, and know that one size does not fit all,” Burgess said.

She said the schools, some virtual and some in-person, invite parents and community partners to enhance students’ learning.

“It’s amazing that we can get everyone together — public schools, charter schools, homeschoolers, and microschoolers — to really show people that we all put kids first,” she said.