North Carolina’s Republican-dominated legislature and Democratic governor got together recently, played some good old-fashioned politics and ended up passing worthwhile legislation expanding school-choice opportunities for children trapped in failing or mediocre schools.
Lawmakers told Gov. Roy Cooper he must expand school choice or risk losing $1.1 billion in unspent coronavirus-driven CARES funding.
The result was an expansion of North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship program, a voucher program with $85 million in unspent funds — which Cooper as recently as August declared his intention to sweep and use for other projects, including a $360 million plan to give each public school teacher a $2,000 bonus.
The legislature also used the pandemic-funding fight to allow 3,800 additional students to enroll in the state’s two virtual charter schools.
Along with those permanent policies, the state also enacted some one-time help for parents in the form of small grants to assist with ancillary educational needs like hiring tutors or upgrading Wi-Fi for improved virtual learning at home.
In return for Cooper’s cooperation, the legislature smartly included funding which insulates local districts from budget cuts caused by declining enrollment, thus diminishing the effectiveness of teachers’ unions’ zero-sum argument claiming educational liberty for parents means diminishing resources for public schools.
Neither Kentucky’s political environment nor its opportunities to advance politically bottlenecked school choice policies are unlike North Carolina’s.
Lawmakers in both states struggle with policymaking in an environment where the urban-rural divide is sharp and clearly a factor when it comes to educational reform.
There’s a big difference, for example, in being a North Carolina legislator representing Washington County — population 11,859 — and Mecklenburg County where more than 1 million reside, just as there is between Kentucky GOP lawmakers from Jefferson County — home to 760,000 Kentuckians — versus Hickman County and its population of 4,902.
Rural Republicans especially seem to struggle with navigating in a way that allows them to advance reforms while not alienating public-education stakeholders.
They struggle mightily with supporting policies like a statewide charter school law since public charters are viewed as a threat by bureaucrats because they promise to expose mediocrity in local districts and give concerned parents another option for their children and the dollars which educate them.
“Vote for an idea like that and we’ll find someone to challenge you in the next election,” is a threat more than one Kentucky Republican lawmaker has received from a local administrator in a rural district.
What’s a rural lawmaker to do when the local superintendent — often his district’s highest-paid and most politically influential person — issues such a warning?
The backstory to North Carolina’s successful school-choice legislation suggests that combining principled strength with political savvy offers a better chance for advancing reforms than weakly succumbing to the demands of outright-hostile but locally powerful critics.
Legislators sent a message during Cooper’s first year in office by overriding his veto of the state’s 2017 budget, making North Carolina the sixth state
to offer education savings accounts (ESAa), which assist parents of special-needs children with the most popular type of educational choice in the country, according to recent polling by EdChoice.
The hard truth is some legislators may indeed lose their seats in rural districts for supporting school choice policies.
Yet North Carolina Republicans, who lost their legislative supermajority the year after overriding Cooper’s veto, leveraged that power while they possessed it to bring help to thousands of families and force an anti-choice governor to the negotiating table.
Also, they maintained their majority, indicating many voters will support legislators after tough votes. Much is made of Kentucky Republicans’ legislative supermajority and their consternation over the possibility of losing it.
Will there be legislators willing to demonstrate the statesmanship and political savvy required to use the power while they possess it to benefit Kentucky families long after they may lose it?
Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. He can be reached at email@example.com and @bipps on Twitter.