GOP budget draft backs universal private school vouchers, delays Parents’ Bill of Rights

North Carolina Republican lawmakers plan to sharply expand the Opportunity Scholarship program and delay implementation of the Parents’ Bill of Rights until next year.

Leaked legislative budget documents obtained by The News & Observer show GOP lawmakers plan to triple Opportunity Scholarship funding over the next decade as part of a plan to offer universal private school vouchers.

The budget documents also show lawmakers will accept GOP State Superintendent Catherine Truitt’s request to give schools until Jan. 1 to comply with the new Parent’s Bill of Rights law.

Republicans have a legislative supermajority, so they don’t need Democratic support to pass a budget. But the budget has been delayed because of a fight over casino expansion, with House Republicans wanting to separate it from the budget vote.

Here’s a look in more detail at some of the education items in the budget documents:

Universal private school vouchers

North Carolina is poised to join a small but growing number of states that are offering universal private school vouchers

The budget calls for increasing funding for the voucher program to $520.5 million by the 2032-33 fiscal year.. That’s compared to the $176.5 million spent this fiscal year.

The increase in state funding would come with new rules that say any family could apply for a voucher to get taxpayer funding to attend a K-12 private school. This change would eliminate income eligibility rules that restricted wealthy families from getting a voucher.

The highest voucher awards would go to the families with the lowest income. But even the wealthiest family would be able to get a voucher equal to 45% of the average amount the state spends per students in public schools.

Nariah Hunter (center right), 7, dances with classmates as they sing in music class in this 2016 file photo. Her family used a North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship to attend Victory Christian Center School.
Nariah Hunter (center right), 7, dances with classmates as they sing in music class in this 2016 file photo. Her family used a North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship to attend Victory Christian Center School.

The state spends around $7,200 per student.

“This is the most important part of the budget,” Marcus Brandon, a former state lawmaker and executive director of the school choice group CarolinaCAN, posted on X Tuesday. “Strengthening and modernizing our public education system to meet the needs of ALL kids is the best investment we can make.”

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has been rallying public school supporters to oppose the expansion of the voucher program. Cooper has pointed to an Office of State Budget and Management analysis that allowing any family to get a voucher could cost traditional public schools $200 million in state funding from lost student enrollment.

“By expanding voucher eligibility to any K-12 student, our public schools, especially schools in rural and poorer counties, will face steep funding cuts, leaving schools without the resources to maintain fixed costs and support students,” Cooper said in March when he announced a “state of emergency for public education.”

In response, GOP lawmakers say in the budget that it’s their intention to provide public schools with some of the state funding they’ll lose when students leave after getting a voucher.

If a student leaving a public school gets less than the full voucher amount, lawmakers say they’ll transfer the difference in money back to the school district.

Parents’ Bill of Rights delayed

The new budget gives public schools three extra months to implement the many requirements in the new Parents’ Bill of Rights law.

On Aug. 16, Republican lawmakers passed into law — over the veto of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper — limits about discussion of LGBTQ issues in elementary schools and a requirement that schools notify parents if their child changes their name or pronoun.

The budget would give schools until Jan. 1 instead of the current Sept. 15 deadline to implement the law. Truitt, the state superintendent, had told lawmakers there wasn’t enough time for schools to get the law in place this month.

Audience members hold up signs as a speaker addresses the Charlotte Mecklenburg school board on Aug. 22, 2023 prior to its 7-2 vote to approve four policies that comply with North Carolina’s Parents’ Bill of Rights. The new law limits instruction of LGBTQ+ issues in elementary schools and potentially require schools to “out” LGBTQ+ students to their parents.

The budget also exempts the N.C. Youth Risk Behavior Survey from the new legal requirement that parents have to provide permission for their children to take “protected information surveys” at schools.

These surveys ask students questions on issues such as their sexual behavior and their mental or psychological problems.

The budget also clarifies that school employees can “give emergency health care when reasonably apparent circumstances indicate that any delay would seriously worsen the physical condition or endanger the life of the pupil.”

Schools had raised concerns that the new law limited how they could respond if a student was having a medical emergency.

The delay has angered supporters of the law. Brooke Weiss, chair of the Mecklenburg County chapter of Moms for Liberty, posted on X Tuesday that Truitt is a “traitor” and that Senate leader Phil Berger “is putting his special interests above children.”

Expand Teaching Fellows program

Other education components in the budget include:

Expand the N.C. Teaching Fellows Program into two more colleges and universities and open the program to aspiring teachers who want to teach in elementary schools. Currently, the program is only offered in eight institutions as a way to help cover the costs for college students who agree to teach special education or STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) classes in the state after graduation.

The proposed expansion comes at a time when the state’s public schools opened this school year with more than 3,500 teaching vacancies.

Limits the reasons the State Board of Education can use for withholding funding for charter schools. State lawmakers recently stripped the state board of its authority to approve and renew charter schools, so the state board passed a policy to control funding of charters.