In their version of the budget, Senate Republicans have a plan to grow a large reserve fund for the Opportunity Scholarship Program. The scholarships, or vouchers, are given to low-income parents so they can pay to send their children to private rather than public schools.
Senators plan to increase the amount of money set aside by $10 million annually, enough to accommodate 2,000 additional students each year. By 2028, the state would be setting aside $145 million. But advocates and critics are divided on whether there’s demand for such an expansion.
Eighth-grader Terri Stroud has attended no less than three Durham middle schools.
"And the reason I was switching up schools so much is because I wasn’t doing that well because I was being bullied a lot," said Terri, 15. "So it just kind of just got me off focus. And because of that my grades started slipping."
Her mother, Kila Stroud, is a teacher at Faith Assembly Christian Academy—a K12 private school run through a Durham church. She said she could see Terri wrestling with her environment in public middle school.
"Her workload I thought was fairly easy but she struggled with it," Kila Stroud said. "And just knowing her background and how smart she was she shouldn’t have struggled.”
Kila Stroud wanted to send her daughter to Faith Assembly. But with tuition at $3,500 a year, she couldn’t afford to until she found out about the Opportunity Scholarship Program. To qualify for the program, a student's household income has to be under 133 percent of the free and reduced lunch price guidelines, or about $60,000 for a family of four.
The Strouds qualified for the voucher based on their income, and Terri started her eighth grade year at Faith Assembly.
"And my grades, like, skyrocketed," Terri said. "So from when I was at Ds and Fs, I was excelling at As and Bs."
Terri said the smaller, calmer classes have helped her focus and get the attention she needs from teachers. Her mother said the school’s focus on the Christian faith also helps Terri be herself. Faith, she said, was an important factor in choosing Faith Assembly.
"If she felt like she needed to stop what she was doing at any moment and say a prayer, you know to help her with her faith in whatever she needed at the moment, I felt comfortable she could do that at Faith Assembly,” Kila Stroud said. “Whereas in a public school, even in a charter school, you know you’re not really free to worship the way you want to.”
State senators think there are a lot of families like the Strouds. In the 2015-2016 school year, about 3,500 students got vouchers. This year’s Senate budget increases voucher funding enough to accommodate 34,000 students by 2028.
Sen. Chad Barefoot (R-Franklin) said he thinks there’s enough demand for a voucher program of that size.
"What you’ve seen in other states that have moved forward with choice programs is that you do reach a point where it levels off, but we are not there yet," Barefoot said in an interview.
Barefoot pointed to Florida, where with a student population about twice the size of North Carolina's, about 70,000 students receive vouchers through a tax credit scholarship program.
In Indiana, the number of students on vouchers exploded after the state eliminated a cap on the program. Last year, almost 33,000 Indiana students received vouchers to attend private school, up from about 9,000 in 2012. In fact, more than half of the Indiana students who attend private school receive vouchers.
Keith Poston of the North Carolina Public School Forum said the short history of vouchers in North Carolina doesn't tell the same tale.
"This year, almost a third of the program’s budget is unspent...as of April 1," Poston said.
Of the $17.6 million lawmakers set aside in 2015-2016 for Opportunity Scholarships, about $4.5 million had gone unclaimed by May 25—enough to fund more than 1,000 scholarships at the maximum rate of $4,200 a year. The previous year, lawmakers had set aside $10.8 million, but voucher applicants claimed less than half.
Kris Nordstrom, policy analyst for the left-leaning NC Justice Center is also doubtful the voucher program could sustain enough growth to accommodate 2,000 new students each year. In a report, he said the past two years of the program have shown demand max out at about 8,000 students. Furthermore, Nordstrom says if demand remains constant, and lawmakers proceed with the Senate plan, the result will be a massive $665 million voucher reserve fund by 2028, most of which would go completely unused.
But Opportunity Scholarship advocates say the past two years are not representative of the real demand for the program.
"You can’t talk about the application process without talking about the nearly 15-month legal cloud that we had," said Darrell Allison, president of the pro-voucher group Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.
Allison said funds went unspent while the program was being challenged in state court. For several months, the program could not legally release funds to families while it was under a temporary injunction. Since the State Supreme Court decided the program was constitutional, Allison says applications have increased.
"We talk to families, and they say 'It’s here'," he said. "So you’re seeing a real significant uptick where we’re about to eclipse all of what we did last year in about four or five months."
Allison points to the more than 5,000 eligible new students who have applied for vouchers for the 2016-2017 school year. He notes that if all those students accept, and all the current students return, there will be families on the waiting list for next year.
Poston remains skeptical. He noted that school choice groups like the one Allison leads have been blanketing low-income communities with ads.
"And frankly it’s a little bit misleading because I think most people understand that there are differences between what they think in their mind’s eye is a high quality private school education, versus what some of these schools where money is being funneled to today that really aren’t at the same level," he said.
Poston said the $4,200 dollar voucher isn’t enough to pay for tuition at most of the state’s top private schools, where tuition runs in the tens of thousands of dollars. Some less expensive schools may be providing a quality education, but Poston said because neither their curriculums or their test scores are public information, it's hard to say.
"The fact is we don’t really know," he said.