A provision in the state budget that the General Assembly just passed expands the number of students in Alamance County who will be eligible to receive state-funded tuition assistance to attend private K-12 schools, regardless of their families’ income levels.
Supporters of the Opportunity Scholarships program enacted into law in 2013 say that the expansion of available funding, included in the biennial budget passed last week, allows the “funds to follow the child,” i.e., the state’s annual per-pupil allocation, from public to private K-12 schools that may better suit the child’s educational needs.
Critics – whose ranks include former Alamance-Burlington superintendent and former State Board of Education chairman Dr. Bill Harrison – contend that the expansion of the Opportunity Scholarships program, now in its tenth year, siphons off money from chronically-underfunded public schools.
ABSS school board members haven’t taken up a public discussion about the expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship program.
School board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves said Wednesday in a phone interview with The Alamance News, “It’s a great opportunity for those families that want or need those, but it’s also an opportunity for public school systems to sharpen their focus on the academic opportunities and extracurricular activities that aren’t always available in private schools.”
The school board’s chairman also pointed to a recent analysis by the N.C. Office of State Budget and Management, which estimated that 653 students in Alamance County would receive Opportunity Scholarships to attend private schools during the current school year, or about 94 more students than the number who received those funds during the previous school year.
Alamance County had 559 students who received more than $3.1 million in state funding for private school tuition assistance through the Opportunity Scholarship program during the 2022-23 school year, based on the latest data from the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority that administers and oversees the programs (see accompanying chart for a breakdown of awards disbursed by private school).
Alamance County had a total of 2,253 students enrolled in a total of 11 private K-12 schools during the 2022-23 school year, according to the state Division of Non-Public Education, which operates under the umbrella of the North Carolina Department of Administration.
The following private schools were operating in Alamance County, as of July 2023, according to the Division of Non-Public Education:
• Alamance Christian School (Graham);
• Bible Wesleyan Christian School (Graham);
• Blessed Sacrament Catholic School (Burlington);
• Bradford Academy (Mebane);
• Burbrella Microschool (Burlington);
• Burlington Christian Academy (Burlington);
• Grace Christian Academy (Haw River);
• Positive Day School (Burlington);
• Providence Christian Montessori (Burlington);
• The Burlington School (Burlington).
Two other nearby private schools, Faith Christian Academy and Greater Vision Academy, are located just over the Guilford County line, in McLeansville and Gibsonville, respectively.
The Division of Non-Public Education (DNPE) tracks the number of students enrolled in private schools; and the State Education Assistance Authority (SEAA) tracks the number of students who receive Opportunity Scholarships.
However, enrollment data for individual K-12 private schools during the 2022-23
school year has not yet been finalized by the DNPE. And not all students who were enrolled in K-12 private schools last year received Opportunity Scholarships, according to both state agencies.
The original bill, titled “Choose Your School, Choose Your Future,” was introduced in the state senate in March by senator Amy Scott Galey, a Republican who represents Alamance and Randolph counties, as well as Republican senators Michael Lee and Lisa Barnes.
Over the biennium, the state budget appropriates $87 million in 2023-24 and $163 million in 2024-25 for the program, according to an analysis by the Legislative Reporting Service within the UNC School of Government.
Prior to expansion, Opportunity Scholarships were restricted to families earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty rate (about $110,000 per year for a family of four), and first-time recipients who had to have been enrolled in a public school the previous year or a rising K-2 student.
For 2023-24, the maximum awards for Opportunity Scholarships total $6,492 (for a family of four earning a total of $55,500 per year), according to the N.C. State Education Assistance Authority (NCSEAA). A family of four earning up to $110,000 per year would be eligible to receive 90 percent of the full amount, or about $5,842 in yearly tuition assistance per student, based on income eligibility limits in effect for the current school year.
Critics have repeatedly said the expansion of the Opportunity Scholarships program eliminates existing income eligibility caps.
However, the Office of State Budget and Management’s analysis shows that, under the expansion, at least half of the new funds for the program “must go to students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.”
Harrison, who served as ABSS superintendent from July 2014 until May 2018, described the expansion as unconstitutional in a recent analysis he wrote for Education North Carolina (EdNC), a nonprofit education public policy think tank based in Raleigh.
The expansion diverts millions of taxpayer dollars, Harrison wrote, “in an arguably unconstitutional manner, away from the public schools and into the hands of private and parochial schools with none of the transparency and accountability required of the public schools.”
Harrison, one of the original plaintiffs in the long-running Leandro v. State of North Carolina suit, which established that the state Constitution guarantees the right to a “sound basic education,” wrote in his analysis for EdNC that the Constitution “did not include provisions for financing private and religious education with public tax dollars.”
ABSS chief finance officer Kim McVey told The Alamance News Monday night that she intends to present additional details about the state budget to school board members at their October 10 work session.
With the expansion of Opportunity Scholarships that takes effect with this year’s budget, North Carolina joins less than a dozen or so states around the country that offer some type of private school tuition assistance, regardless of income levels; tax credits; educational savings accounts, or some combination of all three, The (Raleigh) News & Observer reported last week.
Data for Opportunity Scholarship recipients by county during the previous, 2022-23 school year, is available here: https://www.ncseaa.edu/k12/opportunity/opportunity-scholarship-summary/
Statewide, $134.6 million in Opportunity Scholarships were awarded for the 2022-23 school year. For a list of recipient private schools, visit: https://www.ncseaa.edu/opportunity-scholarship-summary-of-data/2022-23-opportunity-scholarship-program-recipient-disbursements-by-nonpublic-school/
Galey had not responded to a request for additional details from The Alamance News by press time.