by Dr. Terry Stoops
Former Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
The Wall Street Journal editorial board gives North Carolina some love:
Parents in North Carolina struggling to get their children back to the classroom have received some welcome news. The state Legislature’s $1.1 billion Covid-19 relief package includes a provision expanding the state’s school choice program.
The victory is all the more significant because the state’s Democratic Governor, Roy Cooper, came into office vowing to eliminate the program. In late August he proposed taking $85 million from the Opportunity Scholarship program while spending $360 million for a $2,000 bonus for all public school teachers.
This debate concerned money from the unspent portion of the $4 billion that Congress sent to the state under the Cares Act. North Carolina Republicans who control the Legislature made school choice a condition of support for the bill, and the Governor had to sign or risk losing all those unspent federal dollars. As GOP state Sen. Rob Bryan put it, “no one really wants to vote against parental choice in this climate.”
The bill expands the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program by raising the income limit for a family of four to $72,000 from roughly $63,000. It also lifts the caps on enrollment for kindergarten and first-grade students, which will now give 1,000 kids on the waiting list a choice. It allows the state’s two virtual charter schools to enroll an additional 3,800 students.
It also includes $335 in “extra credit” grants to families with children that can be used for anything from private tutors to upgrading a WiFi system for better remote learning. Union-run public schools have no basis for complaint because the bill insulates school districts from budget cuts if they report a decline in enrollment.
North Carolina’s decision comes as Covid-19 has exposed the union-first, students-last priorities of traditional public schools. Many union schools refuse to return to in-person learning, while charters and private schools are doing so. Parents worried about their children falling behind are learning that the union schools’ take-it-or-leave-it approach leaves them without options.
“North Carolina’s actions show what can be done when legislators, even in a state governed by both parties, are willing to put party loyalties aside,” says Jeanne Allen, CEO of the Center for Education Reform. Let’s hope more states follow North Carolina’s lead.
Of course, “partisan loyalties” is one reason why our private school choice programs haven’t expanded further. Gov. Roy Cooper signed (and most Democrats in the General Assembly voted for) the bill in spite of its school choice provisions, not because of them.