- Educational options for children have expanded greatly in the past two decades.
- Options have emerged to meet a need for students and parents.
- As school choice has grown so has opposition from the Left, who believe choice weakens schools and siphons resources from the public schools.
School Choice in NC: Empowering Parents and Confronting the Left’s Work to Reverse School Choice Options.
The growth of school choice in North Carolina is one of the most significant educational developments of the past quarter century. Today, nearly one in five students opts out of traditional public schools and enrolls in public charter, private, home school or online schools.[i] Experts believe those numbers will continue to grow. How big has the increase been? Between 2008 and 2018, the number of students attending public charter, private or home schools in North Carolina increased from 200,114 to 339,213, an increase of approximately 70 percent.[ii]
Meeting A Need and Growth
The modern origins of this expansion can be traced to several developments. In 1996 when North Carolina House Speaker Harold Brubaker and Senate President Mark Basnight reached a compromise to allow for the creation of 100 public charter schools; one for each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. In 2010, the North Carolina General Assembly lifted the cap on charter schools. Today North Carolina has 173 charter schools enrolling over 101,000 students. In 2013, North Carolina passed the Opportunity Scholarship Program. In 2015 the program enrolled about 1,200 students. By 2018, enrollment in the Opportunity Scholarship Program surpassed 6,400 students statewide. In addition to charter schools and the Opportunity Scholarship Program, parents of special needs students in North Carolina can also choose to enroll their child in the Disabilities Scholarship Program or the Personal Education Savings Account Program. When we consider the growth of these programs it becomes apparent that few states have done as much over the past quarter century to expand school choice as North Carolina.
Parental choice is the mechanism whereby children have a chance at accessing a better education and the hopes of parents and children are realized. School choice programs are premised on a single truth: all children deserve the opportunity to access a good education. Many parents often consciously make job or housing decisions based on school quality and location. But not all parents are able to make those choices for a myriad of reasons. A school may not be the best fit for the academic or social needs of the child or may not affirm the values of the parents. Even a good or higher quality school is not a great fit for every student. Unfortunately, too many families have no option but to send their child to a school that is struggling.
Parental choice has grown because it fulfills these needs. Parents want the ability to make choices regarding their child’s education. A February 2018 Civitas Poll asked, “In your opinion, who is best suited to decide where a child should attend school?” Seventy-four percent of respondents said parents were best suited to make that decision, followed by the local school board (11 percent); state government (5 percent) and the federal government (1 percent). In the same poll, respondents were asked whether they thought school choice helped or hurt parents and schools. Twenty-one percent of respondents said, “expanded school choice helped public schools because they would have to compete and improve to keep students.” In addition, 35 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that expanded parental choice provides parents the ability to access the best educational options for their child.[iv]
Opposition from the Left in North Carolina
Parental choice is a message that most of North Carolina embraces. However, as parents of all backgrounds have come to enjoy the freedom to choose the best educational option for their children, the voices of opposition from the Left have grown ever louder. Whereas proponents see school choice as empowering parents, the Left views school choice as unwarranted competition for scarce resources that leads to a weakening of the public schools as well as the American ideal of the common school, the primary vehicle for the teaching of democratic ideals to our children.
It is interesting however, that for a political organization that contends it fights for the underprivileged and disadvantaged, the Left has clearly aligned itself with the interests of the educational system – not the interests of students.
It is not difficult to find outspoken opposition to school choice in North Carolina. The rhetoric is heated. As far back as 2008, Rob Schofield of NC Policy Watch was telling other progressives that they should oppose parental choice because it constitutes an all-out assault on public education.
These groups [advocates for parental choice] and individuals are committed to a long-term siege against the public schools in which they intend to push the system to a tipping point – a place at which the traditional model of public education will no longer be sustainable and the “private free market” approach will take its place.[v]
During the floor debate over the Opportunity Scholarship Program – a program to grant vouchers up to $4,200 to eligible poor and middle-income students to attend a private school – then Representative Rick Glazier (D-Fayetteville) – asked others to oppose vouchers because “public education is one place in our country that remains the place we are united under one set of values.”[vi] Glazier said vouchers will weaken public education and undermine opportunity for the vast majority. Vouchers are “creating a second education system when we can’t even fund the first.”[vii]
Disdain for school choice programs runs deep among the Left. The 2016 Democratic Party Platform highlights the party’s opposition to charter schools and vouchers when it says:
We oppose the implementation of private and religious school voucher programs. Such programs harm our traditional public schools by diluting the financial support for those institutions, making our system less socio-economically diverse and encouraging families to abandon the public-school system that serves everyone. We oppose the use of charter schools to re-segregate our student populations. We support the money following the student to whatever public school they attend.[viii]
Whereas school choice proponents seek to expand educational freedom to provide parents a means to access the most appropriate educational options for their child, the Left objects to choice because of the overall impact on the educational system. In so doing, the Left elevates the social goals of public education – diversity, equality and secularism over the goals of individual freedom and liberty – to pursue the best possible education, wherever it may be.
Governor Cooper and School Choice
As standard bearer of the Democratic Party in North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper embodies this animosity toward school choice. Cooper is an outspoken and longstanding opponent of educational choice. As far back as 1996, Cooper completed a Project Vote Smart NPAT test where he indicated he did not support providing “parents with state-funded vouchers to send their children to any participating school (public, private, religious or technical).” In the same survey Cooper went so far as to say he opposed public school choice as well, indicating he would not support “a school choice program which allows parents to choose which public school their child(ren) should attend.”
Cooper’s opposition has deepened with the years. On the “Roy Cooper for North Carolina” website, under the education section, Cooper says,
I oppose vouchers that drain money from public schools. I support strong standards and openness for all schools, particularly charter schools. While some charters are strong, we see troubling trends, such as a re-segregation of the student population, or misuse of state funds without a way to make the wrongdoers reimburse taxpayers. We need to manage the number of charter schools to ensure we don’t damage public education and we need to better measure charter schools, so we can utilize good ideas in all schools.[x]
Interestingly, when Cooper eliminated funding for the Opportunity Scholarship Program in a proposed budget, he failed to include any additional funds to help defray the costs of moving 6,000 students from private to public schools. Evidently the governor thought that those costs would just pay for themselves and the families whose children had a chance at a better education would simply go back quietly to their old school.
In his message after vetoing the Republican budget in 2017, rather than mention that the Opportunity Scholarship can change lives by providing disadvantaged children access to a quality education, Cooper falsely accused the program of having little accountability. “The budget on my desk siphons taxpayer dollars away from public schools and into private school vouchers with little accountability,” declared Cooper. “It’s a steady erosion of public education.”[xi]
Cooper and the Left oppose school choice in other ways as well. One of those ways is to ignore it. National School Choice Week at the end of January commemorates the various educational options available to parents and children, so that every child can obtain an education that fits their needs and background. While many other governors issued proclamations in honor of National School Choice Week, Gov. Cooper failed to issue a proclamation in 2017 or 2018.
Moreover, Cooper refused to invite a single member of a public charter or private school to serve on the Teacher Advisory Committee, a group tasked with providing him recommendations on issues to teachers. Aside from Mark Jewell, the president of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) – the state’s largest teacher’s union and an affiliate of the National Education Association – all 25 members of the Governor’s Teacher Advisory Committee are public school teachers.
The silence is deafening.
Cooper is not only opposed to parental choice, he has said he is working to end such programs and to stop the growth of school choice programs across the state.
Cooper wants to stem the growth of charters and wants to better manage charter school growth. Cooper condemned legislation earlier this year that allowed four towns to break away from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and form their own charter schools. Cooper called the legislation “alarming” and said it would lead to “more resegregated schools.” [xii]
In 2017, Gov. Cooper sued to overturn a 2016 law that would forward fund the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Forward funding provides funding increases of $10 million dollars a year through the 2028-29 academic year for the Opportunity Scholarship Program to help the programs plan for stability and growth. Cooper contended that forward funding “unconstitutionally infringes on the Governor’s executive power to prepare and recommend a budget to the General Assembly.”[xiii] This year an appeals court judge disagreed and held that the process of forward funding was legal and justified. Although the court ruled against Cooper, the case demonstrated the lengths the governor was willing to go to curtail expansion of parental choice programs in North Carolina.
Follow the Money
The National Education Association, the parent organization of the largest teachers’ union in North Carolina, the NCAE, has given millions to local and state candidates throughout North Carolina and is one of the biggest political contributors to Democrats throughout North Carolina.
For representing those interests, Cooper and other Democrats have received help to filling their campaign coffers. Cooper has received nearly $20,000 in direct contributions and teachers unions have also endorsed and promoted Cooper in paid literature directed to influence voters.
The two largest teachers unions the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and National Education Association (NEA) gave over $1 million to party committees in 2016 and 97 percent of those contributions went to Democrats . Donors like to contribute to committees because they can get around limits on direct contributions to candidates. NEA gave $350,000 to support then Attorney General Roy Cooper for Governor in his close race with the Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. Cooper eventually won by 10,000 votes out of 4.7 million votes cast.[xiv]
It is not surprising that NCAE was the first group to endorse Cooper in December of 2015, even before the state convention. Since 1996, Cooper has received $19,450 from the NEA Fund NCAE PAC and the American Federation of Teachers.[xv]
The growth of school choice across North Carolina is one of the most significant educational developments of the last quarter century. As families have been empowered to access more educational options, vocal opposition has arisen from the Left. Progressives and most Democrats critique school choice by saying it siphons much needed resources and weakens the public schools. Rather than protect the interests of students and families, the Left sees school choice as a threat to its political control of public education. That control is harnessed via the Left’s tight relationship with teachers’ unions, a major political constituency and a significant donor to political campaigns. As such it is no surprise that the Left is championing the system over the rights of those who want access to a better education.
Sixty some odd years ago, educational leaders said black students didn’t have the right to attend a better school because of what it would do to the overall education system. Today Gov. Cooper and the Left have chosen that same option. They defend a system of public education that has failed many families. They defend teachers’ unions because school choice is a threat to the financial viability of many failing school systems. Children who need and want a better education are the casualties of political posturing. Their losses must be highlighted. They forever stand against the Left’s claims about its concern for the poor or the wishes of families.
The Left’s opposition to school choice is weak. It has failed to counter the democratic impulses which have fueled the growth and popularity of school choice. The Left’s case is balanced on the thin reed of political necessity. Nor does it change a fundamental truth: the interests of the educational establishment and teachers’ unions seldom coincide with the interests of parents and students. All the more reason to oppose the Left and fight to expand educational freedom for all families.
In Part II we will describe specific steps for defeating the Left’s efforts for restricting and eliminating school choice.
[i] Nearly One in Five Students are Opting Out of Traditional Public Schools. Does it Matter? Raleigh News and Observer, July 13, 2018.
[ii] Charter school enrollment numbers obtained from Highlights of the North Carolina Public School Budget for specific years. Figures for private and home schools obtained from the North Carolina Office of Non-Public Education for various years.
[iii] The ABCs of School Choice, 2018 Edition. Published by EdChoice.org
[v] Of “School Choice” and “Educational Freedom” Rob Schofield, NC Policy Watch, June 14, 2008
[vi] NC House Floor debate, June 12,2013.
[vii] The Insider, May 29,2013,
[viii] North Carolina Democratic Party
[ix] Candidate Surveys Project Vote Smart (NPAT), 1996
[x] Roy Cooper for North Carolina web site. See section on Education.
[xi] Cooper Cites Lack of Education Funding and Irresponsible Tax Cuts for the Wealthy in Vetoing Budget, Press June 26, 2017, Press Release Office of the Governor, Roy Cooper.
[xii] Governor Cooper condemns bill allowing towns to break from CMS, create charter schools, Fox 46 Charlotte web site. Available online at: http://www.fox46charlotte.com/news/local-news/gov-cooper-condemns-bill-allowing-towns-to-break-from-cms-create-charter-schools
[xiii] See” Roy Cooper vs. Phillip Berger and Tim Moore, Charlotte Allen and Yolanda Stith, In General Court of Justice Superior Court Division 17 CVS 6465, Brief in Support of Defendants Phillip E. Berger and Timothy K. Moor’s Motion to Dismiss and Motion for Summary Judgement.
[xiv] A Look at Teachers Union Power & Influence, unpublished manuscript. Peter Cook. July 2018
[xv] Source: North Carolina State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement