RALEIGH — North Carolina legislative leaders are considering locating extra money to fund the private or religious-school tuition of all children who have applied and meet the income qualifications.
N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, and N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, signaled their interest in locating more funds for the "opportunity scholarships" while speaking Tuesday at a rally organized by a school-choice group in front of the Legislative Building.
The N.C. General Assembly set aside $10 million last year to give up to $4,200 per child through the program, which is slated to begin this fall. About 4,500 applications appear to meet qualifications, but only about 2,400 students would receive a scholarship with the available funds.
A lottery to select the recipients is scheduled for June 25. Rally speakers urged legislators to let everyone who applied receive the tuition funds "so each of our children can have a quality education and move forward in this world," parent KC Cooper of Statesville said.
Karen Duquette, vice president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said $6 million to $8 million in additional funding would be needed to cover all qualifying children.
Berger, who also addressed rally participants, said later he believes the "right thing for us to do would be to find the money."
"I look forward to us having the opportunity and the capacity this year for every child who is signed up for the lottery this year having the opportunity to go to the school of their choice," he said at the event. "And so we will work on that."
Tillis is also open to the idea of providing the scholarships to everyone. "This is about giving parents an opportunity to put their child in a setting that helps ensure that they realize their hopes and dreams," Tillis said.
The potential expansion would complete quite a turnaround for the program, which has been challenged in court by parents, teachers and others.
An N.C. Superior Court judge blocked the program from moving forward in February, citing the state constitution's requirement that taxpayer funds for primary and secondary schools be used exclusively for "a uniform system of free public schools." But the state Supreme Court later unfroze the program.
Children seeking scholarships must qualify for the federal free or reduced-price school lunch program, which has an income limit of about $44,000 for a family of four. The grants aren't available to students already attending private schools.
The House budget proposal contains up to $300,000 in matching funds for Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina to help develop 12 charter schools in counties where children score poorly on standardized test scores.