- Associated Press - Saturday, January 14, 2017

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Democrat Roy Cooper criticized GOP Gov. Pat McCrory and Republican lawmakers during the gubernatorial campaign for a program that helps thousands of K-12 children in low- and middle-income families attend private or religious schools with taxpayer funds.

Cooper and his top education allies would prefer the Opportunity Scholarship Program, started in 2014 and on track to benefit 6,000 children this school year, didn’t exist and use program money for public schools. So it’s not surprising the new governor plans to shun the program in his first two-year budget proposal to the GOP-controlled Legislature, released in the coming weeks.

“Obviously there will be no voucher funding in any budget that I propose with the General Assembly,” Cooper said in an interview with The Associated Press before he was sworn in Jan. 1.

But that absence of funding will be essentially symbolic as there are no signs the grant program is going away. State law directs the program to receive more money annually through the next decade to ultimately cover six times as many students. That won’t be soon altered as Republicans hold veto-proof majorities in the General Assembly.

A divided state Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the grant program in 2015, with Republican justices backing the majority opinion. It will be difficult to upset a landmark decision even though a Democratic majority began on the court this month.

“I feel very confident that Opportunity Scholarships are secure,” said former state Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, a champion of school choice initiatives designed to help children living near poor-performing traditional public schools have options. “In every other sphere of life, competition means improvement and it’s true in education as well.”

The program offers scholarships of up to $4,200 to children entering kindergarten or first grade or who have been in a public school during the previous school year. Scholarships are limited to children in families making essentially up to one-third above federal poverty levels.

The current budget included a provision that if left alone in future years directs a $10 million annual program increase through 2027, when it reaches $145 million, and covering 36,000 students.

“We’re locked in here for the next decade,” said Darrell Allison, executive director for Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, which pushed for the scholarship program. Two thousand students were on a waiting list last spring for the scholarships.

It’s unclear if Cooper’s budget proposal would try to do away with the program, halt scheduled funding increases or simply ignore it. Cooper spokesman Ford Porter didn’t provide further details, except to say he’d propose a “realistic budget” that invests in public education. Democrats have said North Carolina must improve per-pupil spending that lags behind other states.

“We have to stop spending public money to private-school vouchers and make sure we channel that money to give students the resources that they need,” Cooper said at a debate with McCrory last June.

Sides over the issue don’t fall along party lines. There’s some support among Democrats for school choice initiatives as a way to get children out of failing schools. Allison said he’s hopeful Cooper will meet with parents of children who are benefiting from the program to “shape his perspective.”

For critics of the already-planned expansion, such as Keith Poston with the nonpartisan Public School Forum of North Carolina, program reforms may be a more reachable goal given the General Assembly’s political composition.

The more than 300 nonpublic schools with students receiving the taxpayer-funded scholarships don’t have to meet minimum curriculum requirements to participate. They also aren’t required to use standardize testing similar to what’s used in public schools that could help parents decide whether their child is benefiting academically, Poston said.

“There are members of the General Assembly in both parties who are uncomfortable with the lack of accountability and transparency in the current voucher program,” Poston wrote in an email.

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