Port: Will North Dakota lawmakers say yes to private school subsidies after saying no to school lunch bill?

State lawmakers, who are also considering doling out $24 million in private school tuition subsidies, just killed a $6 million appropriation for school lunches.

Republican Senator Kristin Roers speaks during floor debate
Fargo Senator Kristin Roers, a Republican, speaks in favor of a school lunch bill during floor debate on March 27, 2023.
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Minot, N.D. — North Dakota's state Senate, today, narrowly defeated House Bill 1491 which, if passed in its present form, would have expanded our state's low-income lunch program to people up to 200% of the poverty level.

This sounds like a lot until you consider that's currently just $49,720 per year for a household that includes two parents and one child. It's just $60,000 per year for a couple with two children.

The vote was 24-23, and the argument which seemed to carry the most weight during floor debate was one having to do with personal responsibility. Multiple lawmakers - including Republicans Sen. Michael Wobbema and Sen. Judy Estenson - argued that it is the responsibility of parents to pay for their child's lunches.

Which makes sense, I guess, in a vacuum, but Sen. Kristin Roers, also a Republican, made what I thought was a poignant point, noting that this Legislature is also considering a bill - House Bill 1532 - that would direct $24 million to subsidies for private school tuition .

"I would argue that there are some people in this room who are very much in favor of giving $24 million to offset some of the tuition costs, and yet this is just a fraction of that dollar total to be able to feed kids," Roers told the Senate chamber. "We require them to go to school. We provide them with books. We provide them with a Chromebook. We don't ask them to pay for part of the electricity bill. And yet we're asking them to pay part of the food bill."


In its original form, HB1491 would have appropriated $89.5 million over the coming two-year budget cycle to pay for all school lunches for the state's kids. It was amended to cut that down to a $6 million appropriation to expand the current low-income lunch program. But even that was too much for a slim majority in the Senate.

Which speaks to the point Roers made in her floor comments.

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If we're going to insist that it's the "personal responsibility" of parents to pay for the lunches at the schools their children must attend, by law, then shouldn't we apply that same thinking to private school tuition?

To be clear, I support school choice, and I support HB1532. I hope it passes. But I suspect that when that bill reaches the Senate floor for a vote — it's currently scheduled for an Appropriations Committee hearing on March 28 — a lot of the politicians who were wagging their chins about "personal responsibility" when it comes to school lunches will be voting for a much larger appropriation to private school tuition.

That's a tough one to reconcile, isn't it?

Keep in mind that school lunch isn't as cheap over a school year as you might think. I have two kids in public schools now — one in first grade, the other a freshman — and by the time this school year ends, I'll have doled out $1,200 for lunches.

I'm a successful guy, and I can certainly afford to pay our school lunch bill, but I'm also not a rich guy, and I can tell you that another $1,200 per year in my pocket wouldn't be a minor thing.

If the state picked up the full tab for school lunches, that would be, based on the original cost of HB1491, nearly $90 million right back into the pockets of North Dakota families.


So much of the debate over this bill has characterized it as some sort of a sop to lazy parents who don't want to care for their kids, but that's the wrong way to look at it. This bill would mean lightening the load for parents, something that's all the more important given the rising cost of living we've been living with, while simultaneously taking the enforcement of school lunch bills off the plate of school boards and administrators.

What would be so bad about that?

This story originally cited 2022 federal poverty guidelines. It's been updated to reflect the 2023 numbers.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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