North Carolina

Fact check: NC Democrat says there’s ‘no wait list’ for school vouchers

Opportunity Scholarship Program has thankful recipient

NC Senate Leader Phil Berger addressed the issue of state vouchers and the value the Opportunity Scholarship Program offers to low income families on Thursday, February 21, 2019 at The Male Leadership Academy. A special guest spoke of its importance.
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NC Senate Leader Phil Berger addressed the issue of state vouchers and the value the Opportunity Scholarship Program offers to low income families on Thursday, February 21, 2019 at The Male Leadership Academy. A special guest spoke of its importance.

North Carolina lawmakers want to make more people eligible for private school subsidies from the state.

The subsidies come in the form of vouchers known as Opportunity Scholarships, a program that provides up to $4,200 to families interested in sending their students to private schools.

State law currently limits vouchers for a family of four to those earning about $63,000 a year, WRAL reported. But a GOP-backed bill, SB 609, would raise the limit to $70,000 a year. The income limit varies based on the number of people in the household.

The NC Senate on May 8 voted 27-18 to approve the bill and send it to the House — against the wishes of Democrats who said the state shouldn’t spend tax dollars on private schools.

During debates, a pair of Mecklenburg County Democrats suggested program expansion isn’t needed. Sen. Jeff Jackson tweeted that “demand has been low.” Sen. Natasha Marcus, meanwhile, said during a floor speech that there’s “no wait list” for the vouchers.

“To the extent there’s any wait list, it’s that these parents make too much money to qualify,” she said.

Jackson’s claim is debatable. Marcus’s claim, however, is misleading.

520 students

For the current school year, 7,593 of 8,113 eligible applicants got Opportunity Scholarships.

Those 520 students weren’t rejected because their parents made too much money, as Marcus said. They were blocked from receiving vouchers due to a cap that limits state spending on kindergartners and first-grade students, as PolitiFact reported in a previous fact check.

Students of any grade can receive vouchers. But the state “can only award 40 percent of the money to kindergarten and first grade,” said Kathryn Marker, director of grants, training, and outreach at the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority.

The so-called wait list evaporates after each year. In other words, the 520 students left out last year won’t automatically be first in line when the application window opens this year.

So, technically, there’s no wait list at this moment. But Marcus is wrong to suggest that scholarships were given to every eligible family.

Contacted by PolitiFact, Marcus said her comment was made in the context of funding.

“I was referring to the fact that no children were denied a voucher due to lack of funding, as is so often the case with Pre-K wait lists,” Marcus said in an email. “The arguments on the floor in defense of this expansion seemed to suggest we needed more funding to alleviate a waitlist.”

However, that distinction isn’t clear upon reviewing her full comments during the May 8 debate.

“There’s some talk about a wait list and some suggestion that not every kid who wants a voucher for private schools is able to get one and we need to expand,” Marcus said during the May 8 debate.

“I want to be clear, as far as I know — and someone can correct me in this body if I’m wrong — every student who has requested a voucher for private school in this state, every year that this program has happened, has received the full voucher amount to which they were eligible,” she said. “To the extent there’s any wait list, it’s that these parents make too much money to qualify. Every student who’s eligible right now has received a voucher, and there’s still $13 million left in this fund, sitting there held hostage for two years before it reverts back to the general fund. So, there’s no wait list.”

Interest rising

Before we rule on Marcus’s statement, we also wanted to weigh in on Jackson’s tweet.

“A few years ago, we (controversially) started subsidizing private schools with vouchers. It was limited to low income families,” Jackson tweeted. “But demand has been low, so now they want to raise the income eligibility.”

The word “low” can be somewhat subjective and hard to define since the program is only five years old. There are also restrictions on who can qualify for the vouchers, so the pool of potential recipients is limited.

Still, in each year of its existence, the number of new applicants and the number of recipients has gone up.

“Clearly, there’s steady interest. We feel the program is growing in a sustainable way. It’s not that it’s flat, it’s growing,” Marker said.

Contacted by PolitiFact, Jackson said unspent money is evidence of low demand “relative to expectations.” He pointed to money left on the table, as reported by the Charlotte Observer and NC Policy Watch, a liberal advocacy group.

Scholarship allocation data doesn’t necessarily represent the total cost of the Opportunity Scholarship program, Marker said. According to Marker, the leftover money amounted to:

2017-2018: $5.5 million

2016-2017: $2.3 million

2015-2016: $4.1 million

2014-2015: $5.8 million

Our ruling

Marcus said there’s “no wait list,” and the only people who didn’t receive scholarships weren’t eligible. That’s not telling the full story.

There is not a wait list in the sense that eligible applications exceed demand, and the ones who didn’t get a scholarship were rolled over to next year. But more than 500 families were left without scholarships last year — even though they were deemed eligible — because of a cap on vouchers to kindergarten and first grade students. Her claim is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context, so we rate it Half True.

This story was produced by the North Carolina Fact-Checking Project, a partnership of McClatchy Carolinas, the Duke University Reporters’ Lab and PolitiFact. The NC Local News Lab Fund and the International Center for Journalists provide support for the project, which shares fact-checks with newsrooms statewide. To offer ideas for fact checks, email factcheck@newsobserver.com.

Paul “Andy” Specht reports on North Carolina leaders and state politics for The News & Observer and PolitiFact. Specht previously covered Raleigh City Hall and town governments around the Triangle. He’s a Raleigh native who graduated from Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C. Contact him at aspecht@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4870.


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