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A Senate education committee gave favorable votes to a number of bills Wednesday, including one that would expand the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program.

The program, often referred to as a voucher program by opponents, gives up to $4,200 per year to eligible students to attend the private school of their choice. 

The bill would increase the amount of money offered by such scholarships and would increase the income eligibility amount from about 150% of the income required to qualify for free-and-reduced-price lunch to 175%.

Under the bill, funding would now increase to up to 90% of state per-pupil funding. The current average state per pupil allocation is $6,586, according to staff at the state Department of Public Instruction. That means students using opportunity scholarships could get a little over $5,900 per year.

“Nothing I can say, nothing I can prepare quite matches up to the parents of children finding that there’s a program that is offered by the state of North Carolina that gives them more opportunity, more choice, more ability to provide for their children the things that they know their children need,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, during a press conference just prior to the committee meeting.

During that press conference, a number of parents spoke, including Melanie Osborne, a single mother of five daughters, four of whom are quadruplets.

Her oldest daughter was in seventh grade and the others in third when she began searching for an alternative to public school. Her oldest daughter was struggling, she said.

“I felt she was underserved and she wasn’t going to get what she needed,” she said.

She called a local private school to see what could be done.

“How does a mother who is a single mom with five kids — how would I get my kids into your school?” she asked. “And she told me about the opportunity scholarship.”

Osborne said the scholarship dramatically improved her daughter’s education experience and told lawmakers that her oldest daughter would be going to Harvard University in the fall.

“I just urge that you please do open this up for more kids,” she told lawmakers.

The Opportunity Scholarship Program is controversial in North Carolina, with sides often breaking along party lines — Democrats opposed and Republicans in favor. There wasn’t much pushback in the committee against the bill, however.

bill that has already passed the House also increases the amount of money students could get under the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Under that bill, eligible students could receive “up to seventy percent (70%) of the average State per pupil allocation in the prior fiscal year” instead. That would go up to 80% in the 2023-24 school year. 

That means if the House bill becomes law, scholarship recipients could get $4,610 until 2023-24, when they could get about $5,269. The bill has not yet been taken up in the Senate.

Both the House and Senate bills would merge two other school choice programs: the Special Education Scholarship for Children with Disabilities and the Personal Education Savings Account.

Another bill passed out of the committee takes up a number of waivers the State Board of Education is seeking from lawmakers to relax accountability requirements around standardized testing. The federal government has already offered waivers in these areas, but the State Board needed state lawmakers to sign off as well. Read more about that here.

The committee also gave a favorable vote to a bill that would loosen the requirements around getting in-state tuition for community colleges and discussed a bill that would allow direct appeals to a judge from special education due process hearing decisions. The latter was only up for discussion today. It will come back to the committee for a vote next week.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.