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Democrats make a final, unsuccessful push against school voucher expansion


Democrats make a final, unsuccessful push against school voucher expansion

Sep 22, 2023 | 5:55 am ET
By Greg Childress
Democrats make a final, unsuccessful push against school voucher expansion
Rep. Ashton Wheeler Clemmons discusses school vouchers during budget debate Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023. (Photo: Screenshot from livestream of budget hearing.)

Democratic lawmakers on Thursday vigorously pushed back against a Republican-led effort to expand the state’s school voucher program that will make it accessible to North Carolina’s wealthiest families.

It was the last chance Democrats had to change minds about the voucher expansion just ahead of successful House and Senate votes approving a $30 billion state spending plan.

The budget calls for pouring $500 million per year into the controversial “Opportunity Scholarship” Program by 2031.

House and Senate Democrats told GOP colleagues Thursday that it’s wrong to spend millions of dollars on private schools that discriminate against some students.

“School vouchers are funding schools that can choose which students to serve,” said Rep. Ashton Wheeler Clemmons, a Democrat from Guilford County. “They can choose not to serve students with disabilities. They can choose not to serve students whose families look different. They can choose not to serve student who won’t wear special clothing.”

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Guilford County Democrat, said between 2024 to 2033, the state will pour $4.1 billion into wealthy, private schools.

Robinson said lawmakers are “taking that money away from 1.4 million public school children.”

“Let me be clear, we’re using public, taxpayers’ money to subsidize private schools for wealthy people, and that’s not because they asked for it, it’s simply because you want to give it to them,” Robinson said.

North Carolina’s voucher program was created a decade ago to help low-income families in struggling schools pay private school tuition. Under the expansion, however, all families — including those worth millions — are now eligible to receive subsidies.

Clemmons noted that low-income families who need schools to provide lunches or transportation — the families for whom the program was originally intended — often cannot take advantage of the voucher program.

“To be clear, the question of state funding for voucher schools is about who we are as a state and who we will be,” Clemmons said. “It is about whether we believe our state is best served by an education system that is supported, funded and challenged.”

School vouchers have been hotly debated by GOP lawmakers and their Democratic counterparts throughout the legislative session. Because Republicans have a supermajority in both chambers, Democrats could do little to stop the school voucher expansion.

Republicans see extending the scholarships to wealthy families as a way to increase school choice for parents they contend are growing increasingly wary of traditional public schools.

Democrats see the voucher program as part of a larger GOP scheme to dismantle public schools by shifting limited resources to private schools that are not held to the same standards as public schools.

Voucher critics also complain that the private schools that receive taxpayer money engage in religious indoctrination and exclusion, discriminate against LGBTQ students and parents, and are not held accountable for academic outcomes the way charter schools and traditional public school are.

The program is also ripe for fraud, critics contend, because of limited state authority over private schools. A report released by the NC Justice Center in June found 62 instances in which a private school received more vouchers than it had students.

One of the worst offenders was Mitchener University Academy in Johnston County. The report found that the school enrolled 72 students in 2022 but received vouchers for 149 students. That means the school likely received $230,000 for students who never attended the school, the Justice Center reported.

The State Bureau of Investigation is investigating fraud allegations against Moses Robert Lee Mitchener, the school’s director.

Rep. Abe Jones, a Democrat from Wake County, said it’s wrong to take limited resources from underfunded public schools to help prop up private schools.

“[Private schools] have existed for years without any help from here [General Assembly],” Jones said. “I think that’s a misuse of funds, certainly not a wise use of   funds.”

Every family that takes voucher money has the option of sending their children to public schools, Jones added.

“If the public schools aren’t good enough, then we should be about the business of making them good enough for every single child that comes into North Carolina through birth or transportation into here,” Jones said. “That’s what we should be about, not taking our limited funds and giving it to private schools.”

House Democratic Leader Robert Reives, a Chatham County Democrat, said the voucher program isn’t intended to ensure students get into private schools.

“We’ve found a way to funnel funding to private schools is what we’re doing,” Reives said. 

The budget bill received final approval by the House just after midnight Friday morning. The Senate is expected follow suit mid-morning on Friday.