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Roy Cooper hopes to turn clock back on education fight
But the General Assembly is betting that North Carolina voters have moved on
You’ve got to give Gov. Roy Cooper credit — he’s very good at PR1.
With a five-minute video and a dramatic turn of phrase, Cooper dominated the political discussion over the last week and ratcheted up the pressure on General Assembly leaders seeking to expand school choice for North Carolina families.
I published a piece in the middle of last week breaking down the false and misleading claims Cooper made in his “state of emergency” address. If you missed it on social media, I hope you’ll give it a read:
Gov. Cooper won’t succeed in killing the General Assembly’s school choice bill. It’s overwhelmingly popular and good for North Carolina families. In a Civitas poll last week, 52% of North Carolinians supported the bill, with just 22% opposed.
But that’s not really Cooper’s goal. Instead, he’s trying to build his party’s case for 2024 and reframe the debate around education. He’s trying to resurrect the narrative from the early 2010s that the Republican-led legislature is waging a “war against public education.”
It’s a bet that might not pay off. Remote learning during COVID lockdowns fundamentally changed the conversation around education across the country, with North Carolina parents more skeptical about how education dollars are being used. At the same time, the state’s school districts are still awash in federal cash, undercutting arguments that schools simply don’t have enough money.
In states like Virginia and Florida, Republicans have taken control of the education issue by focusing on content and choice, rather than funding. The General Assembly is hoping they’ll have the same success.
The politics behind Cooper’s move
The case for school choice is abundantly clear. The North Carolina constitution requires every student to be given the opportunity for a sound, basic education. For the majority of children, the traditional public school system is the best method for this to happen.
But every child learns differently, and a one-size-fits-all approach simply isn’t realistic. That’s why you have to give parents the tools and resources to find a school that works for their family. The Opportunity Scholarship program is a key part of that, and most North Carolinians understand it.
So Cooper doesn’t really attack school choice itself2. Instead, he casts the bill as a villain that will siphon off resources traditional public schools need to stay afloat. He uses it as a way to blame Republican leaders in the General Assembly for underfunding schools, tying per-pupil spending levels directly to poor school performance. It’s the same playbook Democrats used in the early- and mid-2010s, with some success.
He’s wrong, of course. Higher spending levels don’t automatically translate to better performance. There’s no funding target that North Carolina could hit to guarantee success. If there was, the General Assembly would have hit it years ago. I break down some of the evidence in this new piece here:
That reality has been thrown in even more stark relief by the $4 billion in federal money North Carolina schools have received over the past two years. The state’s large school districts have struggled to figure out how to spend it all.
Still, Cooper’s attack lines have historically played well politically. There’s a general consensus that North Carolina public schools don’t perform as well as they should, and the funding issue is a simple, easy-to-understand scapegoat.
How will Republicans respond?
Republicans, meanwhile, are more vulnerable on this issue than they were pre-COVID.
After a strong half-decade that saw North Carolina vault up the teacher pay rankings, movement here has largely stalled. While there have been a few bright spots since 2019, Republicans have largely turned their attention elsewhere.
In an interview with Newsmax last week, House Speaker Tim Moore said that the legislature is investing record amounts in education. However, “we simply have certain areas of our state where the public schools are failing, and we can’t just keep waiting and waiting while these children are being failed,” he said.
He makes a good point, but the obvious follow-up question from a suburban swing voter would be: So, what are you doing to make these schools better?
Moore and other Republican legislative leaders are betting that North Carolina voters have moved on from funding as the primary answer.
School choice is part of the response, but it’s not likely to be the only one. Investment in school choice works best when it’s paired with efforts to improve the traditional public school system, too.
To build the case, the legislature is likely to push to get a few more education wins on the board in this session. A veto-proof majority in the General Assembly is likely to help.
There’s plenty more opportunity. None of these have been hinted at yet, but the General Assembly could also craft bills to:
Audit how hundreds of millions of federal dollars school districts received from COVID relief packages have been used
Tackle administrative bloat in school districts
Create an incentive fund to recruit top principals and teachers
Set a long-range target for starting teacher pay and average teacher pay
Draft a “Teachers’ Bill of Rights,” similar to the one in Florida
Put together, it could be enough to counter Gov. Cooper’s counternarrative on North Carolina education. But it will require somebody to take ownership of telling the education story. I live and breathe North Carolina politics, and I have a hard time piecing together what the General Assembly’s vision is for public education in our state. This shouldn’t be the case.
School choice is crucial, but shoring up the traditional public school system is, too. Cooper’s prepping for 2024, and Republicans in the General Assembly need to do so, as well.
2 things of note
Robinson, Stein polling roughly even
What’s happening: The two presumptive nominees for governor in 2024 are polling roughly even, according to a new poll from Civitas.
Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, a Republican, garnered 41.5% support of likely voters, while Democrat Attorney General Josh Stein had 40.8%. That still leaves nearly 20% of the electorate undecided.
A few other interesting nuggets from the poll:
A record-high 77% of voters said they believe the country is on the wrong track. The percentage has steadily risen since last November.
The generic ballot for General Assembly still has Republicans with a healthy advantage — 47% to 40%. Remember, this is a relatively recent phenomenon: For most of the last decade, Democrats generally maintained an advantage here.
President Joe Biden is way underwater in North Carolina (32% approve/57% disapprove) but Gov. Roy Cooper is still afloat (44%/38%).
Voter ID is still wildly popular, with two-thirds of North Carolinians in favor.
Why this matters: For people like us who follow North Carolina politics with a passion, it’s easy to forget that most voters don’t. But at least for now, North Carolina appears set to send a large Republican majority back to the General Assembly in 2024 and cast electoral votes for a Republican presidential candidate, as well. The verdict on a governor is far from decided.
What comes next: Polling works best when the same questions are asked month after month. Luckily, Civitas tends to do this. We’ll be closely watching the Robinson/Stein numbers as the campaigns begin to ramp up.
Vice bills back up for debate in the General Assembly
What's happening: After a two-month hiatus, bills that would legalize medical marijuana and sports gambling in North Carolina are back up for debate in the General Assembly.
The House is about to take up the medical marijuana bill that passed in the Senate back in March, and the Senate has already started considering the sports gambling bill that passed the House. Both bills have the support of Republican leadership.
It's unclear what changes the House might be interested in making to the marijuana bill passed in the Senate. But last week, a Senate committee tweaked the House's gambling bill. The new Senate version increases the tax rate on gambling companies from 14% to 18% and also throws horse race betting into the mix.
Why this matters: I argued against both of these bills back in March when they passed their first votes, and not much has changed since then.
But the impact of sports wagering has become even more clear with this month's NBA and NHL playoffs. While watching the Carolina Hurricanes, I was struck by just how overwhelming the presence of gambling apps like DraftKings and FanDuel has become. They dominated the TV broadcasts, with prompts to place new bets during every period. Bringing all this into the arena will likely make it even worse.
On the marijuana issue, David Larson has an interesting piece about the impact the legislation could have in the Carolina Journal.
What comes next: The House health committee is slated to hear the medical marijuana bill this week, and the Senate's floor vote on sports gambling could also come this week.
1 good idea from another state
New Mexico now has an official “state aroma”
I’m a sucker for state symbols, and New Mexico has a new one. It became the first state to declare an official “state aroma,” designating the smell of roasting chiles for the honor, Governing magazine reports. Drop your nomination for what North Carolina’s state aroma could be in the comments.
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Or at least his political advisor Ken Eudy is. The founder of public relations firm Capstrat is reportedly back to work for the Cooper administration. He apparently orchestrated the big abortion bill veto rally and this “state of emergency.”
It’s worth pointing out here that Cooper sent his own child to a private school.