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NC public school grant bill lauded by proponents

Gary d. Robertson, Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- Supporters of a bill providing public money to low-income families to attend North Carolina private or religious schools said Monday passing the measure would help give all students the prospect of succeeding in life.

Clergy, legislators and other proponents of the Opportunity Scholarship Act said at a Legislative Building news conference that children shouldn't be punished for living in a zip code where the school is performing poorly and failing its students.

"This is not about undermining our traditional public schools," said Darrell Allison, of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. "There are solid public schools across our state but we know that not every school can meet the needs of every child, especially for our poor children."

The bill's latest version, scheduled for debate Tuesday in a House committee, would provide in the law's first year up to $4,200 to a student in a family that would qualify for free and reduced-price lunches in school, according to Rep. Rob Bryan, R-Mecklenburg and a primary sponsor of the measure. Income qualification levels would rise slightly in subsequent years.

The free-lunch level is $29,965 in income for a family of four and the reduced-price lunch level is $42,643, according to a table from the Department of Public Instruction. An earlier version of the bill would have allowed grants for families making up to three times the poverty rate, or $70,650 for a family of four.

The bill, which would appropriate $50 million over two years for the program, has support from several Democrats and church leaders. Bishop Phillip Davis of the Nations Ford Community Church and a male leadership academy in Charlotte said many young people living in poverty would benefit from the grants.

"The parents of these boys need a hand," Davis said. But it needs to be a hand up, not a handout, he said.

Opponents of the idea consider the bill a "voucher" plan that would only pull students and public funds from the state's schools. The vouchers haven't been shown to improve educational outcomes for children where they've been used in other states, according to the group Public Schools First NC.

Lawmakers should "expand opportunities within our public school system, like innovative programs and magnet schools, rather than dismantling our public schools and wasting our hard-earned tax dollars," the group said in a release Monday.