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North Carolina’s Democratic governor declares state of emergency after losing school choice debate

By Ben Marquis
|
May 23, 2023

The Republican-controlled North Carolina state legislature is on the verge of passing a school choice bill that would provide taxpayer-funded vouchers for all parents to use to send their children to whichever public or private school they choose.

That potential outcome has been deemed to be unacceptable by Democratic North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, who declared a "state of emergency" on Monday in an effort to rally opposition against the measure, Fox News reported.

The governor's move was sharply criticized by school choice advocates who pointed out Cooper's glaring hypocrisy in sending his own daughter to a private school but denying that same opportunity for better education to other parents in the state.

Gov. Cooper Declares a "State of Emergency" on Public Education

On Monday, Gov. Cooper delivered a special address to declare a "state of emergency" with regard to public education in the state in response to "extreme legislation" that he argued would "cripple" the state's public education system, cost public schools "hundreds of millions of dollars," worsen an already bad teacher shortage, and inject "political culture wars" into the school curriculum.

"It’s clear that the Republican legislature is aiming to choke the life out of public education. I’m declaring this state of emergency because you need to know what’s happening," Cooper said. "If you care about public schools in North Carolina, it’s time to take immediate action and tell them to stop the damage that will set back our schools for a generation."

According to the governor, the "private school voucher scheme will pour your tax money into private schools that are unaccountable to the public and can decide which students they want to keep out." He warned, "When kids leave public schools for private school, the public schools lose hundreds of millions of dollars."

Cooper also asserted that the vouchers would be available to all parents with students in the state, including millionaires, and said that in conjunction with GOP proposed tax cuts, would drop an "atomic bomb on public education by shrinking the state’s budget by almost 20 percent."

He further warned that public schools would be forced to make substantial cuts to things like "early college, AP and gifted courses, art, music, sports," and would exacerbate the already substantial shortage of public school teachers in the state.

Gov. Cooper ended his remarks by urging all North Carolinians to contact their local state legislators to express opposition and "limit the damage" done to the public school system by the Republican-led legislature.

Bill Would Triple Budget for Private School Voucher Program

WRAL reported last week that the Republican-controlled state House had voted 65-45 to pass H823, the "Choose Your School, Choose Your Future" bill, and that the state Senate would soon hold a vote on an identical companion bill known as S406.

If those bills were to be passed into law, the state would essentially triple the budget for the state's already existing private school voucher program from around $133.3 million to $400 million and expand eligibility to all families, albeit with a requirement that at least 50 percent of the funds go to low-income families, who could receive up to $7,000 per student while wealthy families were capped at $3,000 per student.

The House bill was championed and sponsored by Republican State Rep. Tricia Cotham, who earlier this year formally switched parties from Democrat to Republican specifically because of her support for school choice.

"Maybe a kid says they hate school. It’s just not the place, maybe the school is too large, maybe it’s the type of curriculum, maybe they have dyslexia and need another location for them," Cotham told WRAL of her support for the legislation. "So this would give families, parents, the opportunity because they know their child the best to say where their child should go to school."

As for the Democratic critics like Gov. Cooper who argue that private schools aren't held accountable by the state in the same way that public schools are, Cotham countered by arguing that parents themselves served as the accountability check on private schools since they could easily un-enroll their children and send them somewhere else if they were displeased.

Republicans Could Override Threatened Veto From Governor

WRAL further reported that Gov. Cooper is expected to veto the private school voucher program expansion bill if it is passed by the Senate in the coming days and weeks.

However, Republicans now have supermajorities in both the House and Senate, thanks in part to Rep. Cotham's party switch, and could override Cooper's expected veto, as the legislature has already done a couple of times during the current session.