by Dr. Robert Luebke
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
Part 1 of this article demonstrates how many of the claims Gov. Roy Cooper uses to justify his decision to declare a “state of emergency” for public education collapse upon further examination. Part 2 will show how Cooper’s heavy-handed leadership has contributed to many of the educational challenges we face. His policy and leadership failures have helped to propel the demand for school choice, the very movement he now hopes to stop.
On May 22 Gov. Cooper declared a “state of emergency” for public education in North Carolina. Since then Cooper has been making his case to the public and educators. The public has met the declaration with nary more than a yawn.
Why? The governor’s claims don’t withstand scrutiny, and his actions and leadership have fueled — not resolved — the challenges our schools are facing.
Cooper continues to harangue Republicans for not raising teacher pay enough, yet he fails to mention the four times he vetoed teacher pay raises, decisions that have certainly impacted average teacher pay, negatively affected teacher morale, and exacerbated teacher shortages in certain areas.
Cooper talks much about the impact of Covid-19 on schools, but let’s remember it was the governor who shut down schools and created a system under which many schools were forced to pivot to remote learning. The governor’s policies kept many children either out of school or in modified instructional settings and contributed greatly to the learning loss in children. A legislative report in 2022 found that, on average, the pandemic policies impacted students negatively in all grades and subjects (except English II). The impacts were especially negative for math (grades 5 through 9) and science (Biology) students.
Remember Cooper’s decision to keep schools closed was heavily influenced by the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), the largest professional teachers association in North Carolina, the state affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA), and a major donor to the governor’s campaign. Like the NEA, the NCAE was a major voice in advocating for the closure of all schools during the pandemic.
The truth is, Cooper’s heavy-handed leadership propelled a public health crisis into an economic and educational one. The pandemic gave weary and anxious parents an inside look into how their schools operated. Many didn’t like what they saw happening — and not happening.
While Cooper’s emergency declaration for public education was prompted largely by a potentially significant expansion in school choice in North Carolina, his decision to close public schools or move them to remote schedules caused many parents their own states of emergency. The governor’s decision upended schedules, forced parents to become not only temporary teachers but also school guidance counselors, nurses, and psychologists. It gave many parents a firsthand view of what and how their children were learning.
It’s not an exaggeration to say parents didn’t like what was going on. A January 2021 Civitas Poll of likely registered voters showed a plurality gave the governor a thumbs down for how he handled the issue of school reopening. Furthermore, nearly two out of three respondents said that, if cost were not a concern, they would choose a different learning environment for their child.
How much do parents want other educational options?
A May 2023 Locke Civitas Poll found that 75 percent of respondents thought parents were best suited to determine where their child attends school. Furthermore, 51 percent of respondents favored the idea of providing parents with vouchers to help pay tuition, and 51 percent of respondents expressed support for legislative efforts to expand the Opportunity Scholarship Program.
Over the past few years parents watched as the federal government shoveled $6.2 billion in Covid relief to North Carolina public schools with the hope of repairing learning loss and other problems created by bad judgment and bad policy. According to the Department of Public Instruction, $4.5 billion has been spent to date. Of that spending, over half (54 percent) has gone for salaries and benefits. Less than 2 percent was spent on tutoring.
Since 2019 traditional public school enrollment has declined 3.2 percent. At the same time enrollment in charter schools has increased 3.6 percent, while enrollment in private schools and home schools in North Carolina has increased 12.6 percent and 13 percent respectively. Yes, families want educational choice.
Earlier this year Republicans in both houses of the legislature drafted proposals (House Bill 823 and Senate Bill 406) to expand the popular Opportunity Scholarship Program significantly to help meet the growing demand for school choice in North Carolina.
How did Gov. Cooper respond to these developments?
He declared a “state of emergency” for public education. To the governor, this emergency is not over known problems facing education in North Carolina. It’s not because of declining test scores, nor because over half of North Carolina public school students lack grade level proficiency in math or reading, nor because choices under Covid had a negative impact on all students, in all grades and almost every subject, including especially math and science. Instead, the emergency to Cooper is his belief that Republican policies would “cripple the state’s public education system.”
The governor’s wording and timing are telling.
Evidently, persistently troubling outcomes such as falling test scores, growing concern about learning loss, and parental dissatisfaction levels weren’t enough to get the governor’s attention. A conceptual threat to the economic health of the system of public schools — and to the livelihoods of one of Cooper’s largest political constituencies, the NCAE — was.
Instead of talking about educational outcomes and ways to boost student achievement, which are topics of natural interest to parents and policymakers, Cooper is more concerned with the economic impacts on the system of parents exercising their rights to educate their child at a school of their choice. It is quite telling that Cooper shows no policy concern for students, just institutions. The public emergency, in the governor’s book, only applies to schools and those who staff them. Policies to help remedy the current problems for students and others impacted by the governor’s “emergency declaration” are conspicuously absent.
For parents who have struggled through lockdowns, school closures, and learning loss and worry about more bad decisions from public school officials in the future, Cooper’s emergency declaration is not gaining traction. Officious policymaking broke the trust between parents and schools, as did Cooper vetoing the “Free the Smiles Act” that would have given parents discretion over whether their child wears a mask in school and prevented school officials from harassing and discriminating against “unmasked” children. The last thing parents want now is for their governor to tell them they can’t send their child to a better school because doing so would harm the public schools.
Cooper prattles on about the impacts of children leaving the system. For someone who does, he seems not at all concerned about the reasons parents and children want out. Why?
Declaring a state of emergency is a serious action, as the governor should well know. Any declaration should be accompanied by strong facts and compelling data supporting a course of action for the public good. Where are the governor’s data? He’s made several tours to schools to make his case, put out a budget document with estimated impacts, and posted a list of school districts that have passed resolutions to his web site.
So why has he not sought a vote of the Council of State for an official declaration of emergency as required by state law? Cooper’s emergency declaration for Covid lasted so long (889 days) that the General Assembly had to revise the Emergency Management Act to make it explicit that any statewide emergency declaration requires concurrence by the Council of State. Why does he not seek an official declaration?
It’s obvious Cooper doesn’t actually believe an emergency declaration is warranted or would even be approved by the Council of State. So in that sense he is in tacit agreement with many policymakers and much of the general public that, while our schools face many challenges, the challenges the governor mentions are genuine policy differences and not challenges that portend a bona fide public emergency.
Now over seven weeks since his declaration, Gov. Cooper still lacks a compelling rationale and the support of the public for his emergency. It’s time for the governor to end the charade and get back to the business of governing.