by Dr. Terry Stoops
Former Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
Gov. Roy Cooper’s decision to sign the Coronavirus Relief Act 3.0 is deeply satisfying. After years of enduring his strident opposition to the expansion of school choice in North Carolina, I am delighted to see his signature on legislation that affords additional seats for the state’s two virtual charter schools and three private school choice programs. Why hasn’t the mainstream media asked Gov. Cooper to explain his decision? Where is the outrage from the teacher union and school choice advocacy organizations?
Since being elected governor in 2016, Cooper repeatedly voiced his contempt for private school choice programs and his desire to suffocate them for the sake of “accountability.” At a 2017 NC Public School Forum event, Cooper claimed, “We really don’t know what these schools are doing or how they are performing,” a claim rated “half true” by PolitiFact North Carolina reporter Will Doran and “half baked” by parents and grandparents.
Despite the publication of multiple evaluations of the Opportunity Scholarship Program by NC State researchers and strong empirical support for school choice generally, Cooper spent much of 2019 doubling down on his condemnation of North Carolina’s school choice initiatives.
In an episode of WRAL’s Education Matters, Cooper remarked that “unaccountable private-school vouchers … siphon money away from our public schools.” He claimed that “we have no way of knowing if the students who are going to these private schools are getting the kind of education that they need.” In the end, he “felt better eliminating the funding” from the program.
In an Education Matters interview later that year, he called the Opportunity Scholarship Program “an expense that we should stop in our state.”
My colleague John Hood has written that Cooper “is among a rump group of grumpy politicians who think school choice has gotten out of hand.” Actually, Cooper is among a rump group of hypocritical politicians who think that school choice is fine for his family but not for the common folk.
I don’t fault the Coopers for their decision to send their daughter to the elite Saint Mary’s School in Raleigh, nor do I object to Mrs. Cooper delivering a commencement address at her daughter’s alma mater in 2017. As parents, our instinct is to maximize opportunities for our children to succeed and celebrate their success. And the wealth accumulated by the Coopers afforded their daughter opportunities that low- and moderate-income families cannot enjoy. For families of modest means, options are limited.
That is not to say that the options are necessarily worse. North Carolina families have more high-quality educational options than ever before courtesy of Republican-led initiatives that often garnered support from equity-minded Democrats in the General Assembly. During the 2019-20 school year, around 21% of North Carolina children were in schools of choice thanks to the expansion of public charter schools, the introduction and support of private school choice programs for low-income and special needs children, approval of a virtual charter school pilot program, and passage of a more accommodating home school statute.
The school choice provisions in the Coronavirus Relief Act 3.0 advance these efforts. The law expands eligibility limits for the Opportunity Scholarship Program from 133% to 150% of the amount required for the student to qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program. This means that a family of four with a household income of up to $72,000 a year will now be able to access the $4,200 private school vouchers for their children. The law also lifts the cap on kindergarten and first-grade enrollment. Previously, the law limited the share of dollars that could be used for students in these grades, leading to waitlists that could not be alleviated using unspent dollars.
The law also adds $6.5 million to the private school choice programs for special needs children, the Children with Disabilities Grant Program and the Education Savings Account Program. Lawmakers point out that the funds will be used to reduce the 2,500-student waitlist for these programs.
Finally, the Coronavirus Relief Act 3.0 increases seats for North Carolina’s two virtual charter schools. In August, school leaders formally requested that the members of the State Board of Education grant a one-year enrollment increase to meet parental demand for full-time online charter schools. At that point, NC Virtual Academy had a waitlist of 6,337, and the NC Cyber Academy had 2,571 students seeking seats. Predictably, the board packed with Cooper appointees denied their request.
The new law makes a dent in the waitlists but does not come close to eliminating them. Lawmakers authorized the NC Cyber Academy to increase its enrollment by 1,000 students, and the NC Virtual Academy can add up to 2,800 additional students for the current school year.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that so-called “pro–public education” judges, legislators, and Council of State officers promise to clobber choice programs if elected. There is no guarantee that the expansion of school choice will continue past 2021.