by Dr. Robert Luebke
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
With officials closing schools or limiting school schedules in response to the coronavirus, parents have been clamoring for more educational options for their children. Recent poll numbers reflect those sentiments. The January 2021 Civitas Poll found 82 percent of respondents supported the statement, “parents should have the ability to choose where their child attends school.” Support is high for North Carolina’s charter schools (59 percent), voucher program (66 percent), and Education Savings Accounts (72 percent). In addition, the January 2021 Civitas Poll also found that 73 percent of respondents said they would favor proposals that give parents greater flexibility in allocating how tax dollars are spent for their child’s education.
Two bills that respond to these changes are House Bill 32, “Equity in Opportunity Act,” and Senate Bill 297, “Homeschool Tax Credit.” Both bills would expand parental choice in North Carolina.
Yesterday the House Education Committee took up HB 32, approving a Proposed Committee Substitute (PCS). The PCS added several provisions to the original bill. Some of the major additions included provisions to make foster children and children whose parents were honorably discharged from the armed services in the last 18 months eligible for the Opportunity Scholarship Program. The PCS would also clarify several administrative processes.
The other major provisions of the bill include expanding eligibility for the Opportunity Scholarship Program. The legislation adds that any child who is four on or before April 16 would also be eligible for the program, provided that the child’s principal establishes the student can meet program requirements.
In addition, HB 32 would make children who were previously enrolled in a nonpublic school and who meet the other admission requirements also eligible for admission.
HB 32 would also change the amount awarded to recipients of the Opportunity Scholarship. Currently, recipients can earn a scholarship up to $4,200. If approved, HB 32 would peg the scholarship award to 70 percent of the average state per-pupil allocation. In 2019-20, the average per-pupil state expenditure was $6,637. Seventy percent of that number is $4,646.
The bill would increase that proportion to 80 percent in the second year. Proponents say the change is needed because scholarship award levels have not been raised since the legislation was first passed in 2013.
Lastly, HB 32 would authorize the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority to contract with a nonprofit organization representing parents and families with up to $500,000 in funds remaining from the end of the fiscal year. The nonprofit organization must meet certain requirements but would assist with outreach, scholarship education, and application assistance. Such activities are currently prohibited.
In addition to seeking changes to the Opportunity Scholarship Program, HB 32 would combine North Carolina’s two existing special-needs grants programs (the Special Education Scholarship Grants for Children with Disabilities Program and the Personal Education Savings Account program) into one program. Students with certain disabilities would be eligible for scholarship funds up to $17,000. Up to $4,500 could be carried forward annually. Other students would be eligible for scholarship funds of an amount equal to the sum of the state allocation for children with disabilities plus 85 percent of the average state per-pupil allocation. Part-time students would be eligible for half that amount. Applicants could also apply to both programs. To aid with program budgeting, HB 32 would also create a Personal Education Student Account Fund Reserve for the next ten years.
Lastly, HB 32 would authorize counties to appropriate – if they wish — up to $1,000 per child for any child residing in the county who receives state funds from one of the scholarship programs and is enrolled in a nonpublic school.
Another bill of interest to school choice advocates is SB 297 to create a home school tax credit. Currently more than 142,000 children are registered as enrolled in home schools in North Carolina. It’s expected that home school enrollment could increase by 10 to 15 percent in the wake of the coronavirus, although figures are not available yet.
HB 297 would provide parents and guardians a tax credit of up to $1,000 on state income taxes for dependent children who are home schooled. The tax credit would be available to children who meet the traditional definition of home schooling — i.e., families who oversee, direct, and plan the sequence of academic instruction of their children. Families who participate in virtual learning would not be eligible for the tax credit. The credit would be nonrefundable, meaning it would be applied only against taxes owed.
Sen. Chuck Edwards, the primary sponsor of the bill, recently told Carolina Journal that the bill is meant to provide relief to thousands of homeschooling families who bear the burden of educating their children. Edwards said, “When a child is educated at home, the state avoids tremendous costs for school construction and operation. These families also pay taxes, and it’s only fair that a portion of their tax dollars is returned to help offset their expenses.”
As of this writing, HB 32 passed the House Education Committee and has been sent to the Appropriations Committee for review. SB 297 was introduced in the Senate in mid-March and is under review by the Senate Rules Committee.