NC House panel backs grants for private schools

Chris Kardish, Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- A North Carolina House panel on Tuesday narrowly backed a controversial bill that would give taxpayer money to North Carolina students to attend private or religious schools.

The House Education Committee voted 27-21 to recommend a bill that would give annual grants of $4,200 each to students from low-income families. The bill has sparked a clash between advocates who call it a victory for school choice and opponents who say it marks the dismantling of public education.

The bill still has to go through another committee, which will discuss the financial impact, and the House floor.

The program is limited in its first year to families with income levels that qualify them for the national school lunch program, which is no more than $36,131 for a family of three. Bill sponsors estimate the $10 million earmarked for the 2013-14 school year would serve about 2,000 students.

The following year, when spending would increase to $40 million, the program could serve about 9,000, said Rep. Rob Bryan, R-Mecklenburg and the bill's lead sponsor. Eligibility would extend to those earning 133 percent of the income level for the national school lunch program after the inaugural year.

Top priority in later years would go to eligible students who received grants the previous year followed by those living at or below the national school lunch income level and students entering kindergarten or first grade.

Non-public schools serving voucher students would have to administer national standardized tests for grades three and higher. They'd have to report results to the program administrator the State Education Assistance Authority and provide written progress reports to parents annually. Only overall reports from schools serving more than 25 voucher students would become public record.

Of the 12 states with voucher programs, eight offer vouchers to students with special needs and four offer them to low-income students, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. North Carolina would join Louisiana and Ohio in offering both if the voucher bill and another measure giving grants to students with special needs become law.

Opponents have argued that accountability measures need to better match the annual reporting requirements of public schools. They also say the program will undermine funding for public schools — North Carolina ranks 48th in the nation for such funding — and won't serve its stated purpose of sending disadvantaged students to private school because costs will remain out of reach.

Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, said he found that tuition costs would require thousands in out-of-pocket costs for families after researching rates at 24 private schools in eight counties. Because private schools are under no obligation to take any student, the toughest kids will remain in a weaker public school system that serves as the only institution in the nation that truly binds people together, he said.

"This bill, in my view, has all the problems that vouchers have: It will weaken public education, it will undermine opportunity for the vast majority," Glazier said.

The bill has bipartisan backing and opposition. Rep. Chris Whitmire, R-Transylvania and a former county school board chairman, voted against the bill. He said private school costs too much even with a grant for poorer constituents in his district, which has seen remarkable progress in public education and national recognition.

"This bill robs Peter to pay Paul, and in the end I have great issues with accountability and transparency," he said.

But Rep. Bert Jones, R-Rockingham, said opponents falsely demonize supporters of vouchers as enemies of public education.

"It basically means that if you shop for your groceries at Food Lion that somehow you are conceding that Harris Teeter is broken or that Harris Teeter is bad," he said.