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High demand means tens of thousands may be shut out of NC school vouchers

Students at Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic School in Charlotte in spring 2021. It's one of the private schools eligible for North Carolina's Opportunity Scholarships.
Ann Doss Helms
Students at Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic School in Charlotte in spring 2021. It's one of the private schools eligible for North Carolina's Opportunity Scholarships.

Critics of North Carolina’s school voucher programs like to say that even millionaires can now get public money to help pay their children’s private-school tuition. And technically that’s true, since the General Assembly voted this summer to remove income caps for Opportunity Scholarships.

But the state has seen a surge of applications for 2024-25, when the new rules kick in. State officials and advocates say that could mean that about 40,000 applicants will be told they can’t get the scholarships because they make too much money.

“Quite frankly the chances of getting into Tier 3 look to me to be pretty slim at this point,” said Brian Jodice of the school choice advocacy group Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. He’s referring to an income level that starts at about $115,000 for a family of four.

The new plan says everyone is eligible for scholarships, which range from $3,360 to $7,468 depending on income. But if there’s not enough money to go around — which hasn’t been an issue in previous years — first priority goes to current scholarship recipients and new applicants from lower-income families.

This year the agency that administers the vouchers says there were 72,000 new applications, compared with fewer than 12,000 in 2023.

“So there will definitely be some sort of lottery component to this,” Jodice said. “There always has been (in theory), but this will likely be the first year where that’s a reality for how scholarship seats are awarded.”

Even when some of the budgeted money was going unused, the General Assembly built in annual funding increases. This summer’s vote ramped that up. Funding went from $176.5 million for the current school year to $191.5 million for the coming year. After that it increases even faster, reaching more than $500 million a year by 2031.

Sorting and selecting applicants

North Carolina currently has about 32,500 students receiving Opportunity Scholarships, which were limited by income. For instance, a family of four making more than $111,000 a year was not eligible this year. If those students continue in the program, they get top priority for 2024-25 money.

The State Education Assistance Authority then sorts new applications into four income tiers:

  • Families eligible for federal lunch subsidies are labeled Tier 1 and get top priority for new scholarships. That’s a maximum of $57,720 for a family of four. The SEAA says 19% of applicants, or about 13,680 students, are in Tier 1. Families in Tier 1 are eligible for the maximum scholarship of $7,468 for 2024-25.
  • Tier 2 is 200% of the lunch-aid cutoff, or $115,440 a year for a family of four. They’re next in line and can get $6,722. This tier accounts for 26% of new applicants, or 18,720 students.
  • Tier 3 is 200% to 450% of lunch-aid eligibility, or up to $259,740 for a family of four. Those students can get $4,480 a year. The SEAA says this group accounts for 37% of applications, or 26,640 students. 
  • Tier 4 is anyone above that level, along with anyone who applies but provides no income information. They’re eligible for $3,360 a year. This level accounts for 18% of applications, or about 12,960 students.

A memo from the SEAA provided by Jodice says the agency expects to approve all Tier 1 families next month. The agency “will have a better sense at that time about whether we have sufficient funds within the existing budget to award some Tier 2 families. Should the enacted budget include additional funds for the program, we would continue awarding families at that time,” the memo says.

Within a tier, if there’s not enough money for all applicants a lottery will be used to see who gets the scholarships.

At this point, it’s too early to say precisely how much money is available and where the cut will fall. Some current recipients may not continue in the program next year, and the SEAA is still working through the new applications.

Freeze or expand?

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has been visiting schools across the state, arguing for a moratorium on expanding Opportunity Scholarships. He says the program siphons money from public schools without accountability.

But the PEFNC is arguing for even more money, saying it’s justified by the demand.

“Demand for (Opportunity Scholarships) by low-income and working-class families is so strong that some of them could be sitting on the waitlist this year,” PEFNC President Mike Long said after seeing the application data. “Because of that we encourage lawmakers at the General Assembly to continue expanding access to Opportunity Scholarships as soon as possible.”

Lawmakers passed a two-year budget in 2023 but could revise it during this year’s short session.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at or 704-926-3859.
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