by Dr. Terry Stoops
Former Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
When I first received word that Gov. Roy Cooper had signed a proclamation celebrating National School Choice Week, I believed it was a hoax (see the proclamation here). For years, Gov. Cooper has been one of North Carolina’s most strident opponents of private school vouchers. He particularly dislikes the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which awards private school scholarships to children from low-income households. Consider just a few of his previous statements:
Suddenly, a trusted colleague produced a proclamation signed by Gov. Cooper proclaiming “January 23–29, 2022 as NORTH CAROLINA SCHOOL CHOICE WEEK” and commending “its observance to all citizens.”
The proclamation language supplied by the National School Choice Week organization and endorsed by Cooper acknowledged that educational options enhance North Carolina’s economic prosperity and the welfare of our diverse communities. It celebrated public, private, and home education options available to families. Most importantly, it affirmed the responsibility to provide all children in North Carolina access to these high-quality options.
Did Roy Cooper see the light? Will he cease presenting budgets that phase out the Opportunity Scholarship Program and instead work with Republican lawmakers to continue expanding private school scholarships and education savings accounts?
At this point, we haven’t received a comment from Gov. Cooper’s staff, but I can conceive of three possible explanations for his unexpected endorsement of North Carolina’s thriving school choice movement. His decision to sign the proclamation is either a startling change of mind, a shrewd political maneuver, or an embarrassing administrative blunder.
The least plausible is that Gov. Cooper had a genuine change of heart about the value of school choice. Yes, he paid for one of his daughters to attend the prestigious Saint Mary’s School in Raleigh. Yes, his wife, Kristin Cooper, spoke at the school’s commencement ceremony in 2017. Yes, the Coopers wanted their daughter to receive an education that met her unique needs. No, I do not believe that Gov. Cooper suddenly recognized that low- and middle-income families deserve resources to access a nonpublic school that meets the unique needs of their children.
Another possibility is that the gubernatorial election in Virginia spooked the Cooper administration. Democrat Terry McAuliffe vetoed school choice legislation in 2016 and 2017 and later proclaimed that he would do so again if Virginia voters granted him another four years in the governor’s mansion. His opponent, Republican Glenn Youngkin, understood the depth of parental discontent and centered his campaign messaging on their concerns. Youngkin’s improbable victory may prompt leaders in the Democratic Party to adopt a more parent-friendly communications strategy in anticipation of the midterm elections in November. Perhaps Cooper believes that a symbolic concession to parental choice will be advantageous to Democrats running for office in 2022 and beyond.
The most likely explanation is that it was an administrative blunder. The proclamation does not appear on the governor’s web site, and Cooper’s press secretary has not issued a press release about it (although I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility of a classic Friday evening statement). A public admission that the proclamation was a mistake would make the Cooper administration appear sloppy or inept. That would not be a good look for the governor recently elected chair of the Democratic Governors Association. More importantly, disavowing the proclamation would reinforce Cooper’s opposition to school choice, which is politically hazardous for Democrats still hoping to rehabilitate their image following the debacle in Virginia.
As of Tuesday, Jan. 18, Cooper’s office had not responded to inquiries about the proclamation, so we may never know the real story.
In the end, I do not believe that Gov. Cooper will be sporting a bright yellow National School Choice Week scarf next week or learning the official National School Choice Week dance. Until I learn otherwise, the cynic in me will continue to believe that the Cooper administration has no desire to protect and expand educational options for North Carolina’s children.