Skip to content

EdNC. Essential education news. Important stories. Your voice.

Bill to eliminate Opportunity Scholarship waitlist moves forward

Voiced by Amazon Polly

The Senate Appropriations Committee considered and approved a proposed committee substitute (PCS) for House Bill 823 — titled “Choose Your School, Choose Your Future” — today.

The bill would eliminate the waitlist for Opportunity Scholarships, which are state-funded vouchers families can use to pay for eligible private schools. It would allocate roughly an additional $463 million to the program over the next two years.

Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, in a recent article titled, “School choice need not mean an expensive windfall for the rich,” says under the surface of school choice expansion, “an important debate is brewing: how to balance the drive for educational freedom with other essential values, including fairness and fiscal responsibility. Simply put: Must the expansion of school choice result in windfalls for America’s wealthiest families, particularly those that already send their children to fancy private schools? Especially when that means blowing big holes in state budgets?”

The expansion of Opportunity Scholarships in North Carolina

Following the expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship program in 2023 — which was estimated to cost the state $4.4 billion over the next 10 years even before the PCS — about 72,000 applications for scholarships were received by the deadline on March 1, 2024.

The N.C. State Education Assistance Authority (NCSEAA) initially notified the families of 13,511 students that they have been offered an Opportunity Scholarship for the 2024-25 school year, according to a press release. These students are “new” students, which means they do not currently receive an Opportunity Scholarship.

All of the families notified of offers were in Tier 1, which consists of households with the lowest income levels and whose student will receive up to the maximum scholarship amount of $7,468 based on the tuition and fees charged by the private school they will attend.

On April 26, NCSEAA extended award offers to the families of 2,294 new students in Tier 2 for the 2024-25 school year. Those families have up to $115,440 in gross income for a family of four, and they could receive up to $6,722 based on the tuition and fees charged by the private school they will attend.

Courtesy of NCSEAA

NCSEAA is the state agency designated by law to administer K-12 scholarship programs. Here is NCSEAA’s data on the Opportunity Scholarship program.

Currently, it is estimated that more than 54,800 applicants are on the waitlist, according to a press release from Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham. In the chart above, you can see the family income limit for Tier 3 for a family of four is $259,740, and families in Tier 4 either did not report family income or their family income exceeds that in Tier 3.

To clear the waitlist for families of all income levels, the PCS funds $248 million nonrecurring for the upcoming school year and $215.5 million recurring to support scholarships in the 2025-26 school year.

The announcement comes after the state announced it is expecting a $1 billion surplus for the next fiscal year.

“North Carolina’s educational landscape is a stellar example of how you can adequately fund public schools and support school choice initiatives,” said Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, chairman of the Senate Appropriations and Education committees, in the press release.

In 2023, 29% of traditional public schools and 27% of charter schools were low-performing.

On Wednesday morning, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper visited Wake STEM Early College High School. Cooper has visited 46 child care centers, schools, community colleges, and businesses across North Carolina, calling for a moratorium on voucher expansion and highlighting the importance of public schools.

Lee said Cooper’s visits across the state raised the profile of the opportunity to apply for a voucher.

The ESA+ Scholarship

According to NCSEAA, “North Carolina’s Education Student Accounts (ESA+) program is available to meet the needs of students with disabilities. Funds may be used to pay tuition and fees for eligible private schools, and for expenses such as speech therapy, tutoring services, and educational technology.”

In 2022-23, according to data on the NCSEAA website, 3,377 students had ESA+ Scholarships. Here is the data.

NCSEAA recently sent award offers to the families of 958 new students.

The bill also includes $24.7 million recurring to clear the waitlist for ESA+ Scholarships. There are an estimated 2,015 applicants currently on the waitlist.

A note on the website of NCSEAA says, “Children who are placed in a nonpublic school by their parents do not have a right to receive all of the special education and related services that they would receive if enrolled in the public schools. Likewise, a private school does not have a legal obligation to provide special education and related services to students with disabilities. Parents are encouraged to select a nonpublic school carefully and to establish a plan prior to enrollment which meets their child’s educational needs.”

The NCSEAA website also says, “Parents of children with disabilities may have another option to help save and pay for education expenses at K12 schools through the use of an NC ABLE Account. The NC ABLE Program allows eligible individuals the opportunity to save and fund a variety of qualified disability expenses, including certain education expenses. The NC ABLE Program is overseen by the Department of the State Treasurer and additional information can be found here.”

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.