Breaking down Gov. Roy Cooper's dishonest "state of emergency" in public education
Sadly, Cooper rejects any sort of reasonable dialogue. Instead, he dishonestly accuses Republicans of trying to destroy public education.
One of the most troubling aspects of Gov. Roy Cooper's fight against the abortion bill was just how dishonest it was. Rather than engage with the bill in reality, he devolved into hyperbole and fear-mongering, calling the bill "extreme" and declaring that women would die.
Cooper's conduct truly was an example of politics at its worst, and it all came off as pathetic and unbecoming of a governor. For all the talk lately about threats to democracy, you could easily make the argument that this type of scorched-earth, bad-faith smear campaign actually is one. If we can't have rational conversations about the issues, what's the point of this whole American experiment?
It didn't work, of course. But rather than learn a lesson, Cooper dived right back into the same playbook on a new issue — school choice.
In a video message Monday staged to look like a live address, Cooper declared a theoretical "state of emergency" for public education, citing the threat of a bill that would modestly expand North Carolina's private school program, known as Opportunity Scholarships.
It's not an actual, legal state of emergency instituted by executive order. Instead, it's a political cudgel he used to launch into a series of misrepresentations and lies, just like he did on the abortion issue a week before.
I wrote at length about the school choice bill back in April, actually arguing that it doesn't go far enough.
But to put it succinctly, the bill represents the philosophy that all the money the state spends on education is meant to support students, not systems. At the same time, it recognizes that not all children learn in the same way. Traditional public schools work for the majority of North Carolina students, but for some kids, charter schools or private schools can do a better job.
So the state offers vouchers to parents who decide that the traditional public school system isn't the best fit for their child, helping to pay for tuition at a private school that can better educate them.
Previously, only lower-income families qualify for the scholarship. But under the new bill, all families would be eligible, with the amount depending on the family's income. Low-income families are eligible for a voucher that's comparable to the amount the state would spend to educate them at a traditional public school. Higher-income families are eligible for a significantly reduced amount.
Bills like these have been overwhelmingly popular in other states, garnering support from parents across political lines. But Democrats have generally opposed them, viewing them as a threat to public school enrollment and finances.
There's a valid debate to be had about whether the school choice approach is the best way to improve education for children. But to have that debate, you have to accept that everyone has the same goal in mind.
However, Cooper rejects any sort of reasonable dialogue. Instead, he dishonestly accuses Republicans of trying to destroy public education.
Let's break down a few of the claims that Cooper makes in his address.
Claim 1: "It’s clear that the Republican legislature is aiming to choke the life out of public education."
This is false. Republican legislators overwhelmingly recognize that a strong traditional public school system is crucial to achieving the broader goal of educating every North Carolina child effectively. That's why there's been so much discussion and debate about improving public education.
Funding for public schools has continually increased over the past decade, but the General Assembly has also pushed toward greater accountability for public schools and toward improvements like insisting on a scientific, evidence-based approach to teaching reading.
There is a significant difference in philosophy between the two sides. Republicans view charter schools, private schools and homeschools as valuable partners in the broader mission. They also believe that money is not the be-all-end-all in improving education quality.
Democrats who oppose school choice view it as a threat and believe that increasing public school funding automatically equates to better education.
Claim 2: "Tell them to stop the damage that will set back our schools for a generation."
There's no evidence that a few thousand more students attending private schools will diminish the education of children who remain in the traditional public school system. But this statement also completely ignores the fact that Cooper himself caused damage that will set schools back for a generation.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Cooper forced schools to close far longer than other states, ignoring evidence that schools were not major vectors of transmission — and evidence that remote learning was a dismal failure. The state has spent billions of dollars trying to dig out of this hole, and it will take years to fully grasp the magnitude of the impact these policy decisions will have.
Claim 3: "Their private school voucher scheme will pour your tax money into private schools that are unaccountable to the public."
We'll focus now on the claim that private schools are "unaccountable." It is true that private schools do not have the same testing requirements or follow public records laws. However, this isn't really what it means to be accountable.
In the truest sense of the word, private schools are more accountable than public schools. If a private school is failing to educate children, parents leave and the schools close. Because parents pay tuition, private school administrators are by-and-large very responsive to parent concerns. They're easy to get in contact with, and they provide a large amount of transparency around budget choices.
Public schools, on the other hand, are a bureaucratic behemoth, not accountable in any meaningful way. If a school is failing to educate students, they keep running indefinitely with little to no consequence. And if Democrats had their way, parents would be forced to send their children there.
Claim 4: "When kids leave public schools for private school, the public schools lose hundreds of millions of dollars."
This is sort of true, but the reality of how this works is more complicated. North Carolina has a complex model for funding public education, but a large part of it is based on the number of students in each school. School districts get per-pupil allotments from the state for a variety of staffing needs, so if a district has fewer students, they'll be allocated less money. That's because fewer students means fewer teachers are needed, fewer textbooks, fewer counselors, and so on. But there are also a number of other buckets of money that school districts receive that are not based on population. So the money that public schools "lose" is generally directly tied to items that depend heavily on student count, but doesn't imperil the educational quality for the rest of the students at the school.
The use of the word "lose" also carries with it its own false assumptions. It presupposes that the state owes money to school districts. It does not. Instead, the state's responsibility is to provide a sound, basic education to students. This is the whole premise of the school choice movement. Cooper's statement belies a wrongheaded approach to what the many billions of dollars the state spends on education are for.
Claim 5: "This drops an atomic bomb on public education by shrinking the state’s budget by almost 20%."
Setting aside the ridiculous language about an "atomic bomb," this 20% figure is also kind of bizarre. The overall state budget has continually grown and is set to grow again in the next biennium. The budget grew by more than 3% in the previous year and is slated to increase by another 7% under the new budget under consideration this year. This budget growth has come despite significant tax relief.
Presumably, Cooper is saying that the budget could be much bigger if the General Assembly hadn't focused on fiscal responsibility. If tax rates increased rather than decreased, the state could spend more money. But to assume that more state spending yields better results is a major fallacy.
Claim 6: "The legislature keeps draining funds to pay for private schools."
This is misleading. The implication is that money for the Opportunity Scholarship directly takes away money from the public school system. That simply isn't true.
The vouchers are funded separately from the system used for public schools. Public schools get the exact same amount of money that they would if the voucher program didn't exist.
Now in some sense, money that is spent on Opportunity Scholarships is money that could be spent in other areas. But it simply isn't the reality that public schools aren't getting the money that they need because of Opportunity Scholarships.
Claim 7: "The Senate has given veteran teachers — a $250 raise spread over two years. $250! That’s a slap in the face, and it will make the teacher shortage worse.
I can't figure out where this $250 figure comes from. Below is the current baseline salary schedule, as well as the proposed salary schedule in the House and Senate versions of the budget. The salary increase I see for the most senior teachers is a $200 raise per year, which would be $400 over two years.
Now, that's not a lot. But there is reasoning behind it, and it’s not to spite experienced teachers. The salary schedule reflects a difference in philosophy in where to spend the most on raises. Republican leaders have typically invested more in raising the salaries of early-career teachers. This helps in recruiting new teachers and keeping them in North Carolina in the early, more mobile stage of their careers.
Again, we can have a debate about this without resorting to demonizing one side.
More experienced teachers have other ways of increasing their salaries. Becoming an administrator is one. For people who want to stay in the classroom, there are salary bumps for earning an advanced degree or taking on more responsibility as a "multi-classroom leader," sharing knowledge with other teachers in the building. The General Assembly has also championed other "pay for performance" methods.
There’s more to be done here, but the idea is that you don't get a big raise simply for sticking around another year. You get big raises through excellence and results. That’s generally how the world works.
Claim 8: "If they get their way, our State Board of Education will be replaced by political hacks who can dictate what is taught — and not taught — in our public schools."
What Cooper is referring to here seems to be a bill that would create an advisory board to give the Department of Public Instruction and State Board of Education input from a wide range of teachers, principals, administrators, business leaders and parents when developing the course of study in the public school system. The ultimate decision-making would still lie with the State Board of Education — made up of "political hacks" that the governor himself appoints.
The idea that there is some technocrat somewhere who knows exactly what every child in North Carolina should learn is preposterous. Deciding these sorts of things is exactly why an elected representative form of government exists in the first place.
In reality, all this bill does is create an advisory committee to get more feedback on curriculum changes. To say that it replaces educators with "political hacks" is simply a lie.
The real state of emergency in public education
The thing is, there really is an emergency in our public education system. Too many children are unable to read proficiently or do math at grade level. I'm even sympathetic to the argument that the General Assembly could do more to help turn around failing schools.
But Cooper's demagoguery is counterproductive. It relies on the false belief that the country's education woes could be solved with a bigger checkbook — an approach that has been proven ineffective in state after state after state.
Even if you fault the approach the Republican majority in the General Assembly is taking, you have to admit that they're at least trying. Cooper is not.
Instead, what this appears to be is a purely political play to raise money and stir up his base ahead of the next election cycle.
The public will see right through it.
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