Grand Forks educators disagree on need for school voucher program in North Dakota
House Bill 1532, introduced by Rep. Claire Cory, R-Grand Forks, would create an educational reimbursement program that would use public money to offset the cost private school tuition.
GRAND FORKS — Supporters of a school voucher bill say it could increase the number of private school students in Grand Forks and across North Dakota by making private school more affordable for families.
Sara Dudley, principal at St. Michael’s Catholic School in Grand Forks, said the price tag of private school can scare off the families of prospective students.
“Parents often don’t even make the phone call thinking it’s going to cost a lot or that they can’t financially make that commitment, even if it is what they desire for their family,” she said. “This would at least get them to start thinking about that as an option.”
But opponents — among them Melissa Buchhop, president of the Grand Forks Education Association and public school teacher in Grand Forks — say parents already have a choice in where they send their children.
“If they want to go to a private school, they have that choice to send their child to a private school and we’re not against that,” Buchhop said. “What we are against is taking public school funds and giving them to the private sector, because in the private sector, they get to follow different rules.”
House Bill 1532, introduced by Grand Forks Republican Rep. Claire Cory and co-sponsored by 11 other Republicans in the House and Senate, would create an educational reimbursement program that would use public money to offset the cost of sending children to private schools. She says it addresses parental choice issues she sees in North Dakota.
“My main thing is offering parents a choice on where to send their kid for schooling, and a lot of times what you’re seeing is a cost barrier where they’re having to make sacrifices to be able to afford it,” said Cory. “This will help aid them in that decision.”
The bill would set aside $24 million from the state’s general fund for the Department of Public Instruction to create the education reimbursement program. To participate in the program, parents of children attending a private school would submit a form to the school, and the school would certify that the student attends school there. Then the school would request funds from the DPI to cover that student’s education expenses.
The DPI would pay the private school for the sum of education expenses no more than 30% of the state-determined per-student pay rate.
“We picked that amount because usually the state provides about 70% of the per-pupil payment and the local political subdivisions usually provide about 30%, so we’re offering what the local subdivisions provide,” Cory said.
In an earlier interview with the Herald, Cory said she planned to introduce the bill to “deal with the growing issues we see in our public school system,” and that a school choice bill would allow parents to choose a curriculum that aligns with their beliefs as “our school system is starting to teach issues which some parents may find uncomfortable or disagree with.” She declined to comment further on those issues.
House Bill 1532 is not the first legislation in North Dakota proposing a school voucher program. In 2021, House Bill 1281 would have provided $2,000 per year tax credit to families with children enrolled in a private school or homeschooling program. It failed to pass in the Senate Finance and Taxation Committee.
Also in 2021, Senate Bill 2288 would have offered tax credits to organizations providing educational scholarships to students in nonpublic schools. It also failed to pass in the Senate Finance and Taxation Committee.
Another bill introduced this session by Sen. Brad Bekkedahl, R-Williston, Senate Bill 2369, would create a property tax credit for the parents of children who attend a private school or are homeschooled.
Buchhop says the GFEA’s main concern with legislation proposing school voucher programs is the use of public funds for a private entity, but other concerns include private schools’ ability to turn students away and how it would affect resources provided to public schools.
“They don’t have to take everybody — they can turn kids away,” she said. “We take everybody.”
A private school’s ability to choose which students attend the school also concerns Nick Archeleta, president of North Dakota United, a union that represents K-12 teachers and other public employees. He testified against House Bill 1532 at a House Education Committee hearing for it on Wednesday, Feb. 1. While public schools are required to educate any student, private schools are not.
“They alone determine who will and will not attend their schools or avail themselves of their services,” he said. “They can discriminate against any student for any reason.”
He said many private schools do not accept students with cognitive disabilities because the cost of providing accommodations is high.
“As a result of that, with great pride, public schools almost exclusively educate these students and we are proud and honored to do so,” Archeleta said.
While Buchhop and other opponents of school vouchers worry they could lessen already limited resources for public schools, Cory says that should not be a problem with her legislation, since the funding would come from a new appropriation.
“The monies appropriated for this program are coming out of the general fund so I don’t see how they’re arguing that,” said Cory.
Buchhop says she would rather see state funds used to invest in programs at public schools designed to help public school students than to create a new program funding private schools.
“They need to look at getting more counselors into our public schools, more school psychologists into our public schools, more social workers into our public schools so we can actually help our students who are struggling the most that need help to succeed,” said Buchhop.
While parents can already choose where to send their children for school, having public funds appropriated to offset the cost of private school would make that choice easier, said Dudley. At St. Michael’s, approximately 17% of students attend the school at a free-reduced rate and about 26% of families are on scholarship, she said.
“So even though families are making a financial sacrifice sending their children to St. Michael’s school, we’re still supporting them with scholarships,” she said. “This bill would allow families to do that in a more financially secure way, to be able to make those choices.”
Gerald Vetter, president of both the North Dakota Association of Non-public Schools and Light of Christ Catholic Schools in Bismarck, told lawmakers on Feb. 1 that the program laid out by House Bill 1532 would provide a welcome educational reimbursement for families that send their children to private schools.
“In covering a modest portion of the actual cost to educate their child this would assist families to attend the school most aligned to their ideological beliefs and ultimately deemed the best fit for each child,” said Vetter. “Thereby, lessening the challenges that may restrict them and the sacrifices being made to attend a non-public school and assuring the right that each child will be receiving a quality education.”
Dudley also testified for House Bill 1532 at its committee hearing. During the hearing, 12 people testified for the bill while seven people testified against it. Online, the bill garnered more than 200 written testimonies from parents, educators and lobbyists on both sides of the issue.
The House Education Committee did not act on House Bill 1532 on Feb. 1, but did discuss and amend the bill on Monday, Feb. 7.
Rep. Dori Hauck, R-Hebron, proposed an amendment that changed wording for how much money private schools would be awarded, which passed 8-6. Originally, the bill said the DPI would pay a private school between 15% and 30% of the per-student payment rate for each form received.
The committee voted 8-6 to refer the bill to the House Appropriations Committee.