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Senate Approves Several School Choice Expansions; Charter School Facility Funding Proposal Dropped

Elizabeth Yelverton | NCASA Legal Affairs & Policy Manager

Senate lawmakers approved several bills attempting to expand options for school choice and charter schools on Wednesday, after members of the Senate Rules and Operations Committee approved the bills earlier Tuesday morning. Legislators expressed the most concern about Senate Bill 609, which would expand eligibility for opportunity scholarships, as well as Senate Bill 522, which would have authorized counties to provide capital funds to charter schools; however, the provision making charter schools eligible for facilities funding was ultimately removed from the bill before passage. Some of the less controversial bills would require the State Board to adopt rules allowing the transfer of sick leave between a charter school and local school administrative unit (LEA), while another bill would create notice requirements for charter schools that are attempting to close or materially revise their charters.

S609,“K-12 Scholarship Changes,” sponsored by Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-Watauga), attempts to expand eligibility for various school choice programs by removing many of the requirements for Special Education Scholarships, raising the income limit for students to qualify for Opportunity Scholarships, eliminating the cap on scholarship funds for students entering kindergarten and 1st grade, and clarifying the eligibility of 4-year-olds for all scholarships. In regards to the Special Education Scholarships, the bill removes nine eligibility sub-requirements, including requirements that the student previously attended a public school and/or previously received special education services. In regards to the Opportunity Scholarships, the bill raises the eligible household income level from 133% to 150% of the amount required for the student to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Some legislators in the Senate Rules Committee pointed out that the Opportunity Scholarship Program already has $12 million in funds currently not being used, which would provide approximately 3,000 additional scholarships. Legislators also noted the scholarship program is set to increase by $10 million per year through FY 2027-28, absent additional action from the General Assembly. As discussed in committee, each $10 million increase has the potential to create 2,500 additional scholarships.

Senate Bill 522, “Various Changes to Charter School Laws,” sponsored by Sen. Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph), is also concerning to school districts, as it lowers the requirements for the automatic 10-year renewal of charter schools and removes the cap on virtual charter school enrollment growth. The bill’s most contentious provision, the local funding of charter school facilities, was ultimately removed from the bill by the bill sponsor on the Senate floor after receiving criticism from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. The North Carolina Association of School Administrators (NCASA) also notified the bill sponsor of its opposition to the bill, particularly the charter facility funding provisions. NCASA appreciates the willingness of Sen. Tillman to hear concerns from education advocates and adjust his legislation based on received feedback.

These bills were passed by Senate lawmakers on Wednesday afternoon. As these bills are heard in the House, members should monitor the progress of these bills and be prepared to express their opposition if needed.

Elizabeth Yelverton