North Carolina School Privatizers Are Subverting Democracy

Across the US, right-wing state legislatures have disregarded popular will to enact costly school privatization plans. In North Carolina, they flouted democracy to advance their agenda.

North Carolina Senate president pro tempore Phil Berger addresses a meeting of the North Carolina Board of Transportation, May 4, 2023. Berger has been a champion of school vouchers. (NCDOT Communications via Wikimedia Commons)

In 2013, North Carolina’s right-wing legislature enacted a school voucher plan called the Opportunity Scholarship, offering public funding for parents to send their children to private schools. There was just one problem: people didn’t want to use it.

Demand for Opportunity Scholarships (OS) consistently lagged far behind available funds until 2021, when the legislature allocated half a million (now one million) annual dollars just to market the program. But even with this generous advertising budget fueled by tax money the state’s public schools desperately need, the OS program struggled to attract parents. In fact, as of last spring, nearly 70 percent of polled North Carolina voters had no idea what Opportunity Scholarships are. The General Assembly even felt the need to include a provision in its anti-LGBTQ “parents’ rights” bill forcing public schools to educate families about private school vouchers.

North Carolina public-school advocates including Letha Muhammad (far left), Sarah Montgomery (third from left), and Susan Book (fifth from left), have been organizing together under the banner of Every Child NC since 2020. (Ismail Abdelkhalek)

The deep-pocketed donors powering the GOP’s laser focus on school privatization have always found vouchers to be a tough sell. Perhaps the main reason for this is that, even with organizations like Moms for Liberty working day and night to gin up chaos and controversy around K-12 education, most parents are still fond of their kids’ public schools. As Robert Asen, a school privatization expert at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, told Jacobin: “Public schools are lively centers of activity that benefit whole communities and engender civic pride, as, for example, when high school sports teams make the playoffs. People get this.”

Reporting from states like Georgia, Texas, and Tennessee shows that vouchers are unpopular even among Republicans, particularly rural Republicans, who perceive the existential threat that school privatization poses to rural communities.

In September, North Carolina became the tenth state to universalize private school choice. Starting next school year even billionaires will be able to cash in on the OS program, extracting tax revenues that might otherwise be used to support the state’s public schools, which are in crisis due to defunding. Data from other states with universal programs show that vouchers enable a phenomenal upward transfer of wealth, with about three-quarters being claimed by privileged families whose children have never attended public schools. That’s partly because tuition at high-quality private schools far exceeds what a voucher will cover, meaning average people are priced out of robust private education even with the subsidies their tax dollars are paying for. It’s a reverse Robin Hood scheme.

Last June, Charlotte-based education researcher Jerry Wilson asked the audience at a pro–public school rally to consider why lawmakers are so intent on expanding an unfair voucher program “that nobody knows about and nobody wants.” It’s a question we all should be asking. Across the United States, right-wing state legislatures have disregarded popular will to enact costly school privatization plans, which expose taxpayers and students to fraud, waste, and “catastrophic” learning loss. Worst of all, these programs imperil the public schools that bring communities together, making it possible for us to see ourselves as a political “we.”

For Wilson, the reason why North Carolina’s General Assembly has been pushing the unpopular and unproven Opportunity Scholarships is pretty simple: “They don’t represent us.”

“My guess,” Wilson told Jacobin, “is that a few politicians bargained the future of North Carolina for an increase in campaign donations.”

The Devil Is in the Budget

What does it mean to say that privatization threatens public schools and the diverse communities that depend on them?

Here’s one way to illustrate that point: if the funds recently allocated for OS expansion had instead been used for teacher salary increases, the salary increases could have been doubled. North Carolina has among the lowest teacher salaries in the nation, which translates to crippling teacher shortages, unexpected school closures, and an overall inability to meet kids’ most basic educational needs. Last school year, one in eighteen North Carolina classrooms lacked an appropriately licensed teacher.

“When you really understand what the General Assembly is doing,” Rodney Pierce, a public-school teacher and parent of three students in the resource-starved Halifax County school district, told Jacobin, “it’s just diabolical.”

In 2022 the organization Carolina Forward published polling showing that a bipartisan majority opposes the use of tax dollars to subsidize religious schools, which have been claiming the lion’s share of North Carolina vouchers. And last spring, Jerry Wilson and the Center for Racial Equity in Education found that 59 percent of North Carolina voters would prefer to address K-12 deficiencies by spending more to support struggling public schools, rather than experimenting with risky private options.

“We can all go down the list of things we’d like to change about our public school,” Sarah Montgomery, senior policy advocate with the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education and Law Project told Jacobin, “but by and large, people are pretty happy with them. People want their schools to be funded, and they want educators to be able to afford to continue in their chosen profession.”

Given all this, Wake County public-school parent and advocate Renee Sekel told Jacobin that the legislature “knew darn well that people wouldn’t support voucher expansion, even with a Republican supermajority.” So how did they manage to push through provisions universalizing Opportunity Scholarships and guaranteeing them an annual half a billion dollars by 2031? Strangely enough, the answer has to do with Medicaid coverage.

Dr Jerry Wilson facilitating a workshop at CREED’s 2023 #TeachingInColor summit. Wilson, with the Center for Racial Equity in Education, conducted polling showing that the more North Carolina voters learn about school vouchers, the more they oppose them. (Nathaniel Barnes Jr)

North Carolina was one of the last states to expand Medicaid, delaying for nearly a decade after the federal government made expanded coverage available under the Affordable Care Act. Finally, in 2023, the General Assembly opted North Carolina into the expanded program, but made its launch contingent upon passage of the next budget. That turned the budget into a must-pass bill, because hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians were still missing out on vital free and low-cost services like annual checkups and prescription drug coverage. “Well now they could add in anything they wanted,” explained Sekel, who is cofounder of the group Save Our Schools NC, and North Carolina deputy director for the organization Red Wine and Blue. “If Governor Cooper had tried to veto it, then they would be able to say that Governor Cooper vetoed Medicaid.”

So the Republican supermajority, itself begotten through outright deception, crammed the budget full of items that otherwise might have been dead on arrival. These included: prohibitions on state and regional efforts to limit carbon dioxide emissions; a new rule allowing judges to bring concealed firearms into their courtrooms; increased independence and authority for the General Assembly’s secret police force; provisions exempting legislators and redistricting documents from public records laws; a prohibition on the establishment of local minimum wage, vacation, and parental leave policies; a prohibition on local limits to the number of hours that can be required of workers in a week; a study to explore privatizing North Carolina’s Department of Motor Vehicles; tax cuts and a corporate tax cap that will hamstring the state’s ability to cover basic services; and of course, a universal private school choice plan associated with skyrocketing state costs. “Yes, the budget’s been where the bad things happen in North Carolina for years now,” Sekel told Jacobin.

The General Assembly devised this latest budget behind closed doors, then rushed it to a vote in less than a week with no opportunity for amendments, public input, or discussion of how these policy changes will shape the lives of everyday North Carolinians. As Heather Koons of the organization Public Schools First NC told Jacobin, simply: “There’s no democracy involved.”

The hard right turn that North Carolina has taken over the past decade is alarming, but this story of universal vouchers mirrors what we’ve seen across numerous states: In order to subtract public funds from democratically governed public schools and turn them over to unregulated private operators, lawmakers have had to work around democracy.

Reconsidering the Right to An Education

“Vouchers represent a bait and switch,” Renee Sekel told Jacobin,

because they were sold as only a way for poor families to escape so-called failing public schools (putting aside for the moment that the people who are funding this escape are the same ones who are refusing to fund the public schools and make them a place you wouldn’t need to escape from). But now we’re just sending unaccountable money to wealthy people who have already decided that they don’t want to put their kids in public school.

The North Carolina Supreme Court has ruled multiple times, in a lawsuit known as Leandro, that the state is falling short of its constitutional obligation to provide all North Carolina children with a sound, basic education, complete with essential resources such as qualified teachers and principals. For over two decades the General Assembly refused to act on those rulings, so in 2022, the court ordered it to fund the independently authored Leandro school remediation plan. Four days later, the court shifted from a four-three Democratic majority to a five-two Republican majority, thanks to laws passed in 2010 and 2013 that changed the process for electing the state’s judiciary.

This month, the North Carolina Supreme Court will hear arguments related to Leandro, pursuant to an appeal brought by Senate president and voucher champion Phil Berger. Berger’s son, Phil Berger Jr, is a member of the court’s new conservative majority. As with other high-stakes cases directly involving his father, Justice Berger has declined to recuse himself from the Leandro proceedings.

“Our constitution is crystal clear that it requires a uniform system of public schools to educate our kids,” explained Sekel, who used to work as an attorney:

The problem is, we no longer have a judiciary that’s independent. They overturn precedent at a whim, based on what they think is best for their party. The Leandro case is open and shut, and yet they’re gonna be rehearing it and could well overturn the right to an education.

State of Emergency

“It’s clear the Republican legislature is aiming to choke the life out of public education,” Democratic governor Roy Cooper announced last May, after declaring a state of emergency for North Carolina schools.

As Heather Koons told Jacobin, the lawmakers and interest groups pushing vouchers in North Carolina are part of a right-wing effort to dismantle public schooling across the United States:

I just don’t think people are aware of how devastating it’s going to be, because the narrative is all about parent choice. But it’s really school choice because the private schools are choosing the kids. And there aren’t good choices for many, many families.

“The only choices I see are the choices our General Assembly members are making,” observed Susan Book, who researched private schools in her county and learned that many of them simply wouldn’t accept her son, Emerson, because he has autism. Book sees the harsh experiences Emerson lived through in public school as a direct result of state disinvestment. She told Jacobin that the legislature

is making it harder to educate our most marginalized populations, and it’s difficult not to see this as intentional. I believe in public education because it is public. I have a say in what goes on, whether through my civil rights as a parent of a kid with a disability, or as a voter. I can’t make that impact in the private sector. It is by its definition not a democratic institution. So the North Carolina General Assembly is making a choice on democracy.

And that seems to be precisely the point. Rodney Pierce has conducted extensive research on the historical relationship between school privatization, segregation, and politics. He told Jacobin he thinks the General Assembly wants to

get back as close to Jim Crow as they can. And it doesn’t just revolve around public schools. It’s about making it harder for people to vote, and making it harder for those same people to get an education. I believe they want a dumbed-down electorate who will not challenge the racist, sexist, and elitist legislation they’ve passed since Republicans took back the legislature with that supermajority in 2013. They are trying to kill the voices of the people who would challenge them.

Pierce’s analysis aligns with the work of people like Nancy MacLean, J. Celeste Lay, and Robert Asen, who have demonstrated that school privatization paves the way for the erosion of multiracial democracy. After all, in the words of Letha Muhammad, executive director of the Raleigh-based Education Justice Alliance: “Our public education systems are one of the last places where people from diverse backgrounds come together and coexist within one building.”

Asen, who is the author of School Choice and the Betrayal of Democracy, told Jacobin that “public schools signal our commitments to a shared public life in which we believe that everyone deserves an opportunity to develop themselves as capable actors and engaged citizens.” Privatization, on the other hand, “sacrifices that public good for the self-interest of the marketplace, breaking the ties that connect citizens in a democracy.”

Renee Sekel links the General Assembly’s attack on public schooling with right-wing efforts to undermine all of the public goods that support democratic participation by meeting our basic needs and inviting us to take part in a shared enterprise. Without these goods and services, we become vulnerable to antidemocratic forces:

Just like they want to get rid of social security, or food stamps, or any social safety net, they want to get rid of public education — or make it such a cramped, ineffective system that it only provides the bare bones. Just like you can’t really feed a family on food stamps, they want to make it so you can’t really educate a kid in the public schools. And then all parents will be responsible for cribbing together some form of education for their kids.

Battle Lines

The only state to guarantee education in its Declaration of Rights, North Carolina has prided itself for leading the Southeast with its strong commitment to public schools, Sarah Montgomery told Jacobin. She continued:

And we’ve seen that legacy completely dismantled in the past ten years or so, because of these extremist policies that have been forced on people. People have not voted for these policies. . . . It’s not a unique challenge for us in North Carolina, but we’re seeing it accelerated here right now.

Montgomery thinks the General Assembly is assuming that as public-school defunding wreaks havoc on families and communities, people will fall for culture-war messaging and point the finger at one another. But what if they’re making the wrong bet? “I think it’s going to backfire,” she predicted. “Because the problems with our schools are not the teachers’ fault. It’s not the local school board’s fault. It’s the state’s fault, and that’s gonna become undeniable.”

Letha Muhammad agrees that the battle lines will become clearer in the coming years: “People will begin to ask the question, ‘Who is standing in the way? Who is creating the environment where resources are being stripped from us?’”

Montgomery can envision a future in which North Carolinians get a taste of the consumer model of K-12 education, only to learn that private schools don’t provide the wide range of offerings public schools do — and that privatization yields an educational landscape defined by ever starker inequality: “We might not all agree on the particulars around equity,” she told Jacobin, “but most people are reasonable, and they want equal opportunities for every student. And that’s completely at odds with what is about to descend on North Carolina.”

“We have a small minority who make decisions for the majority, due to the impact of gerrymandering around elections,” explained Muhammad. “So we are going to have to have deeper conversations connecting the dots, so our electorate can make decisions that cross party lines, that cross racial and class lines. The fight will have to be taken up at the ballot box.”

On February 22, while the state Supreme Court reconsiders the constitutional right to an education, Muhammad, Montgomery, and others under the banner Communities for the Education of Every Child will host a day of action. Despite the grim realities facing public schools in North Carolina and nationwide, the people fighting for education justice remain determined. “I’m doing this for my babies,” said Rodney Pierce, who is currently running to represent North Carolina House District 27. “I’m in this for them, and for the babies that I teach.”

These parents and advocates understand that public schools are much greater than the sum of their per-pupil state aid allotments. As Jerry Wilson noted at the conclusion of his June rally speech: “We know that our public schools are priceless.”