A provision in the state budget, approved earlier this month, adds 2,000 more slots to the Opportunity Scholarship program next year, and also lays out the framework for expansion of the program over the next decade.
The increase will open up the program, which provides scholarships for eligible students to attend private schools, to 6,000 students next year with a plan to add an additional 2,000 slots each year until 2028, by which time there would be about 36,000 slots.
During that time the annual cost of the program would increase from $25 million to about $145 million. The program provides $4,200 scholarships for students.
The program, which began in 2013, has been wrapped up in court battles since its inception from those who oppose the program, saying it takes away from public schools.
Proponents of the program say that students who are assigned to low-performing schools but whose families can’t afford tuition at a private school can utilize the system to get a better education.
The state has more than 500 low-performing schools in the state, which have received either a D or F grade, on a 15-point scale.
Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, praised the program as a resource for families desperate to improve their children’s lives but without the means to do so.
Currently about 90 percent of students in the program have applied to remain in the program after each year.
“On behalf of our North Carolina families who are desperately seeking educational choice, I want to thank Senator [Phil] Berger and leadership for taking this bold step forward to help ensure children can access the school model which best suits them, regardless of their parents’ income or neighborhood,” Allison said. “We are already hearing tremendous success stories from parents whose children have improved by leaps and bounds academically and socially this year thanks to the Opportunity Scholarship program. However, we also hear from many parents who deeply desire this program but cannot due to demand. Personally, it’s very moving to see how far the program has come legislatively and legally to now potentially impacting close to 36,000 children over the next several years.”
The program still does not have enough slots for every student who applies, with an additional 8,000 students applying to join the more than 3,000 students planning to stay in the program next year.
Since its inception, the program has seen more than 22,000 applications.
“This year’s application numbers speak for themselves and again show that families don’t care about political party, race, or inconsequential public school versus private debates; they just want the ability to choose the school they think works best for their children,” said Allison. He added, “It’s our hope that the remaining North Carolina lawmakers will support and stand alongside families who simply want access to the educational model that may best suit their child.”
Rep. Skip Stam (R-Wake), who will be leaving the legislature this year, is the architect of the Opportunity Scholarship plan and leaves the House with a plan in place for the program to grow, though the plan is not set in stone and will be up to the remaining legislators to continue.
Opponents point to the cost of the program. “That’s enough to give every teacher in this state another 2 percent raise,” said Rep. Duane Hall, D-Wake in an interview with WRAL.