ND Senate says ‘yes’ to voucher program for private school education

Published: Apr. 11, 2023 at 5:13 PM CDT
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BISMARCK, N.D. (KFYR) - Bismarck has three public and two private high schools. When Bismarck residents pay property tax to the school district, their money supports the public schools, but not the private schools. That’s how it works across North Dakota. But that could soon change.

The issue of “vouchers” is hotly contested. Proponents say parents should have the option to send their kids to private schools, regardless of their income. Opponents say, if the state funds private schools, it’ll take money away from public schools. And Tuesday, the state Senate advanced Senate Bill 1532, which would create a voucher program in North Dakota.

For some, the issue of vouchers for private education is a no-brainer.

“I think it’s completely appropriate for the tax dollars that they pay to follow their child to a private school,” said Senator Bob Paulson, R-Minot.

But others say the proposed voucher program, for which families at 500% of the poverty line or lower would be eligible, is bad policy.

“We still only help poor children up to 130% of poverty. And now, we’re talking 500%,” said Senator Tim Mathern, D-Fargo.

That 130% figure refers to kids who are eligible to receive free school meals. Earlier this session, the Senate voted down a proposal to increase that to 200%.

“If we have money to fund private education, we certainly have money to feed children,” said Nick Archuleta, president of North Dakota United.

The school meals provision was revived in a separate bill and will soon be voted on again in the House. As for vouchers, some lawmakers believe it empowers parents who couldn’t otherwise afford private education.

“I’m going to support this bill because I want to support parents. Especially those that might be in the position, that they can’t make the decision that they want to for the betterment of their child and their education,” said Senator Terry Wanzek, R-Jamestown.

Some say vouchers are unconstitutional because of a clause that reads, “No money raised for the support of the public schools of the state shall be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian school.”

“Is this in violation? I guess there’s a lot of things that are in question for that. I guess the courts will decide if we’re in violation or not,” said Senator Donald Schaible, R-Mott.

Still, others believe it’s a solution in search of a problem.

“I think of that as a response to public education systems that are broken. I absolutely believe our public education system in North Dakota is not broken. We have one of the finest education systems in the country,” said Senator Brad Bekkedahl, R-Williston.

The bill heads back to the House for concurrence on amendments.

The bill originally would’ve provided $24 million of public funds for private schools. Opponents say, even though that’s been stripped down to $10 million, they’re worried this could one day lead to private education being fully funded by the state of North Dakota.

Previous Coverage: Voucher program bill for private school education passes ND House

Previous Coverage: ND Legislature considers voucher program bills for private and home school education