“This could end very badly.”

That’s the sentiment I pick up from discussions with parents, educators and policymakers frustrated with efforts by the N.C. House to slow-walk expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship program, the the state’s hallmark school choice program.

Provisions to expand it are included in the House budget bill being negotiated this week with leaders from both chambers. What started out as a great legislative victory for school choice has slowly turned into a mere illusion for many parents, families and school leaders.

Last September’s budget bill included a provision to make all North Carolinians eligible for Opportunity Scholarships. Lawmakers were celebrated for responding to the plea from parents for educational options. They were also warned last fall about the expected spike in applications and the need to make additional money available to meet increased demand.

In March, 72,000 new applicants crashed the website of the state organization that administers the program. Responding to this demand, the Senate voted in May to appropriate $248 million for additional Opportunity Scholarships and approximately $25 million to eliminate the backlog for ESA+ Scholarships, which help meet the needs of students with disabilities.

Many hoped the House would do the same. That didn’t happen. Instead, the House included Opportunity Scholarship expansion as part of the budget bill. The slowdown has made a train wreck of fall plans for families and schools. Families don’t know if they have funds for school tuition. Schools don’t know how many new teachers to hire. All that is certain now is the uncertainty.

The latest reports suggest a budget bill won’t be finalized until this fall — if at all — which means the only hope for children on the Opportunity Scholarship waitlist looks to be immediate action by the legislature.

Lawmakers have twice dragged their feet on expanding Opportunity Scholarship funding. Now, the House has chosen to make it a bargaining chip in budget negotiations.

Speaker Tim Moore and other House leaders have been vocal in their support of Opportunity Scholarship expansion. House and Senate totals for expansion are nearly identical. If the two legislative bodies are in essential agreement about funding expansion, why not just pass a separate, standalone bill and end the frustration of thousands of families and school leaders?

Voters aren’t ignorant. They know how politics works and how goodies are needed to get various lawmakers on board. But the educational opportunities of thousands of children are an unacceptable bargaining chip. This year’s totals for “special appropriations” are about half of last year’s $1.2 billion, but still too high.

Parental choice in education has been a winning issue for conservatives across North Carolina. According to a January Carolina Journal poll, the Opportunity Scholarship, Education Savings Accounts and charter schools have support levels of 64%, 73% and 66%, respectively. The expansion of charter, private and home school enrollments all attest to that.

To their credit, conservative and Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate have expanded parental choice policies. At a time when voters are viewing Republicans more favorably on education than Democrats, Republicans seem committed to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Earlier this week, a gentleman who runs a private school called my office to express his frustration with lawmakers over Opportunity Scholarship expansion. He left a message and before he hung up, he said, “We can’t get anybody up there to care.”

Lawmakers don’t grasp the magnitude and intensity of the frustration out there.

Tying expansion to the budget process will alienate voters, many of whom are politically engaged and frustrated by lawmakers’ inability to follow through on a promise or solve a problem their inaction created.

Reneging on a promise is never wise — especially four months before an election.

The above article appeared last week in the Raleigh News and Observer and Charlotte Observer as an op-ed. Access at: https://www.newsobserver.com/opinion/article289545224.html