by Dr. Robert Luebke
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
The year 2020 was terrible for education. The pandemic forced the closing of many schools and thrust children into online learning or no learning at all. While it seemed everyone was falling behind, the pandemic exposed the hard realities of intractable achievement gaps and growing inequities in access to resources.
These challenges damaged the trust and reliability of our institutions. The political response to the pandemic showed us schools can’t— or won’t — always do what’s best for our kids. Covid-19 revealed the brute power of the teachers unions and that unions represent the interests of teachers, not the interests of the children they teach or the parents who pay their salaries.
If 2020 had a silver lining, it’s that parents have rediscovered that they must decide how and where their children are educated. The policy failures and bad choices have forced this decision and elevated the issue of school choice. By necessity parents had to become more active. In doing so they are demanding additional educational options for their children. An April 2021 poll by the American Federation for Children found 71 percent of voters nationally back school choice. It’s the highest level of support for school choice that a major AFC national poll has ever recorded.
Last fall, RealClear Opinion Research reported that overall support for school choice among families with children in public schools jumped 10 percentage points from 67 percent to 77 percent. The poll also found support for school choice relatively even across political lines: 76 percent of Republicans, 73 percent of independents, and 72 percent of Democrats.
State houses across the country have been responding to the changes in public sentiment. The list of school choice legislation in the states is impressive and growing. Some of the major highlights include:
Indiana. The House and Senate have both put forward proposals to fund Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) for the families of special-needs students. The House budget provides more funding ($19 million) and includes military families as well as foster children.
Both chambers also seek to expand eligibility for the tax-funded private school voucher program. The Senate would increase eligibility from 150 percent to 200 percent of income qualification for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program (FRL). For families already receiving vouchers, eligibility is increased from 200 percent to 225 percent of the FRL qualification.
Arizona. Lawmakers are considering additional expansions of the current ESA program to include students who attend low-income schools. Currently, eligibility for ESAs is determined by individual responses. The bill expands eligibility to include students attending low-income schools, regardless of their individual background. Another provision of the bill would further expand eligibility by making any student who lives in the attendance zone boundary of a (low income) school eligible for an ESA.
New Hampshire. Lawmakers in New Hampshire are considering proposals to provide students from families of four earning less than $77,000 an ESA of $4,500.
Kentucky. Overriding a veto by Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, Kentucky lawmakers approved the state’s first school choice program. The law creates a tax credit for organizations that distribute funds to eligible families to use on education expenses and, in some of the state’s largest counties, private school tuition. All students from families with incomes below 175 percent of the federal poverty line are eligible for the accounts. The program is capped at $25 million.
Florida. Lawmakers in the Sunshine State are considering proposals to streamline the state’s existing five choice programs into two ESAs, one focused on special-needs students and the other targeted to the general student population. One of the proposals would also eliminate the requirement that applicants be previously enrolled in the public schools and would also open the ESA program to low-income home school students.
These currents are very much alive in North Carolina. Public sentiment is trending even more in favor of school choice. A January 2021 Civitas Poll found 81.9 percent of respondents agreed with the statement “Parents should have the ability to determine where their child attends school.” In addition, support for North Carolina school choice programs is at or near record highs for the Opportunity Scholarship Program (66.4 percent), charter schools (58.7 percent), and ESAs (71.9 percent).
Last fall North Carolina’s $1.1 billion Covid-19 relief bill included provisions to expand school choice. The bill raised income limits for a family of four for the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the state’s signature school choice program. Previously, a family of four could earn up to $63,000 to be eligible. The bill raised the income limit to $72,000. The bill also lifted the cap on enrollment of kindergarten and first grade students. In addition, it allowed an additional 3,800 students to enroll in North Carolina’s two virtual charter schools.
Let’s also remember, every budget Gov. Roy Cooper has proposed to the legislature has included provisions to phase out and end the Opportunity Scholarship Program. That Cooper signed the Covid relief bill with provisions to expand school choice was reflective of the popularity of the provisions but also a political calculation by the governor of not wanting to be seen vetoing school choice.
So what’s next for school choice in North Carolina? Developments in four key areas point to where school choice can make gains in North Carolina. These include revisions to existing school choice programs, passage of a Home School Tax Credit, approval of Learning Loss ESAs, and wide use of new federal child tax credits.
Two bills have been introduced that would bring significant changes to the state’s three school choice programs. House Bill 32, the “Equity in Opportunity Act,” recently passed the House and is now under consideration in the Senate. The bill would increase the amount of the voucher awarded to recipients of the Opportunity Scholarship Program and also change how the award is calculated. Currently, eligible recipients can receive up to $4,200 to attend a private school. If HB 32 is approved, recipients would receive 70 percent of the average state per-pupil spending in the prior fiscal year. The current average state portion of per-pupil spending is about $6,586. In 2023-24, that percentage would increase to 80 percent. Under current spending, the changes would mean scholarship awards could increase from $4,200 to $4,610 and then in 2023-24 increase to $5,269. Of course, since per-pupil spending would likely be higher by then, the Opportunity Scholarship amount under HB 32 would be, too.
In addition to changing the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the bill would recommend consolidating the state’s two programs for special-needs students into one Personal Education Savings Account. The amount of the special-needs scholarship awarded would be changed from $9,000 per year to 85 percent of the average state per-pupil allocation. Under the proposal, students would be eligible for a scholarship of up to $17,000 depending on the type of disability. In addition, HB 32 would allow counties to appropriate up to $1,000 per resident child as a grant from the state to enroll in a nonpublic school in the county.
The Senate is also considering legislation to improve the state’s three school choice programs. Senate Bill 671, introduced by Senator Mike Lee (R-New Hanover), would among other things raise income eligibility for the Opportunity Scholarship from 150 percent to 175 percent of the amount needed to qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program. The bill would also consolidate two existing special needs programs into one program and provide eligible students a scholarship of up to $17,000. SB 671 is currently under consideration by the Senate Committee on Education/Higher Education.
Another bill of interest to school choice advocates is SB 297, the home school tax credit bill. The legislation 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 credit would be nonrefundable, meaning it would be applied only against taxes owed.
Parents and guardians who home-school their children do it at their own expense. In so doing, they also save the state the costs of educating thousands of students — an estimated $848 million in 2019-20.
Parents could certainly use the aid, especially considering how Covid has upended schedules and normal routines. But passage is not certain. Strong opposition exists among influential lawmakers about carving up the tax code. Moreover, the homeschooling community lacks uniform support for the credit. Some see it as merely an invitation to more government intrusion.
Currently more than 142,000 children are registered as enrolled in home schools in North Carolina. Home school enrollment in North Carolina could increase by 10 to 15 percent in the wake of Covid, according to some estimates.
SB 297 is under consideration in the Senate Rules Committee.
Part 2 of this series will discuss two other options to expand school choice: Learning Loss ESAs and a provision in the American Rescue Plan Act to expand the child tax credit.