“I’m declaring this a state of emergency because you need to know what’s happening,” announced North Carolina governor Roy Cooper in a special address in May. “If you care about public schools in North Carolina, it’s time to take immediate action . . . to stop the damage that will set back our schools for a generation.”
What prompted this extraordinary declaration?
Was it because four in ten North Carolina fourth-graders and a third of eighth-graders scored “below basic” in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress—the worst scores in 15 years? Or perhaps it’s because a quarter of fourth-graders and two-fifths of eighth-graders scored “below basic” in math—the worst performance since 2000 and 1996, respectively.
Or maybe the governor was alarmed by reports that some North Carolina schools were running racially segregated programming, stocking pornographic books in school libraries, and adopting radical policies that keep parents in the dark about school staff calling their children by names that aren’t their own and pronouns that differ from their sex.
None of the above. The “emergency” was legislation to turn North Carolina into the State of Education Opportunity.
The “Choose Your School, Choose Your Future” Act (H.B. 823) would have expanded eligibility for the state’s Opportunity Scholarships to all K–12 students. Families can use the scholarships, which are worth up to about $6,500, for private-school tuition as well as required books, fees, transportation, and equipment.
Earlier this year, the prospects for expanding school choice in North Carolina seemed dim. Cooper, a Democrat, was certain to veto any such legislation, and the Republican-controlled legislature lacked the votes for a veto override.
But that all changed in April when state representative Tricia Cotham switched her party registration from Democrat to Republican, giving the GOP a veto-proof majority. Cotham soon became a prime sponsor of H.B. 823 alongside House Speaker Tim Moore.
Cooper has tried to cast supporters of education freedom as mere opponents of public schools, but he’ll have a hard time making that charge stick on Cotham, a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Teacher of the Year who later served as assistant principal at a public school. She now serves as chair of the House K–12 Education Committee.
For Cotham, there’s no contradiction between supporting public schools and empowering parents to choose the schools that align with their values and work best for their children.
“It’s an honor for me to carry this bill, [which] is very important to so many families,” Cotham said on the floor of the state legislature, explaining that she had met hundreds of Tar Heel families whose children had benefited from the scholarships after having struggled in public-school settings.
Indeed, it seems that her support for school choice may have been a prime reason for her decision to switch parties. In the press conference announcing her switch, Cotham argued that North Carolina’s education system “has to evolve . . . especially after what [parents] saw firsthand and experienced in their home with Covid and learning. ‘One size fits all’ in education is wrong for children.”
However, she found that there was no room in her former party for supporting such reforms. “The Democrat Party didn’t really want to talk about children,” said Cotham. “They had talking points from adults and adult organizations.” She also castigated party leaders for “villainiz[ing] anyone who has free thought, free judgment, has solutions and wants to get to work to better our state,” adding that “if you don’t do exactly what the Democrats want you to do, they will try to bully you. They will try to cast you aside.”
Eventually, Cotham had enough. “They deserted me,” she said of her former party members. “The people who have been the best at welcoming me and working with me on common-sense ideas . . . have been Republicans.”
The school-choice expansion was eventually included in the state budget deal, which the legislature passed mostly along party lines last week. Cotham’s switch gave Republicans the final vote they would have needed to overcome Governor Cooper’s inevitable veto. After the budget passed, Cooper announced that he would allow it to become law without his signature.
North Carolina is on track to be the ninth state to make all K–12 students eligible for school choice and the seventh to do so this year. About one in four K–12 students across America will soon be eligible for school choice.
The growth of school choice nationwide, especially over the past two years, is an incredible story. The expansion of these states’ education-choice policies to every single child will be transformational.
But what has just unfolded in North Carolina is also transformational in a different way. It reveals a monumental shift in the politics of education. At a moment when education policy is a top issue for voters and the Democrats are losing their traditional advantage on the issue, it is notable that an elected Democrat would switch parties to advance school choice.
It may be a harbinger of things to come. In recent weeks, another Democratic state legislator switched parties over the issue of school choice. “When I decided to stand up on behalf of disadvantaged children in support of school choice, my Democrat colleagues didn’t stand by me,” explained Georgia state representative Mesha Mainor. “They crucified me.”
“For far too long, the Democrat Party has gotten away with using and abusing the black community,” argued Mainor, an African American. “For decades, the Democrat Party has received the support of more than 90% of the black community. And what do we have to show for it? I represent a solidly blue district in the city of Atlanta. This isn’t a political decision for me. It’s a moral one.”
The Democratic Party’s base is much more supportive of school choice than are its elected officials, who are in thrall to the teachers’ unions and district-school establishment. A recent national poll shows that 66 percent of Democrats, 71 percent of Hispanics, and 73 percent of African Americans support school choice.
As more states adopt expansive school-choice policies and families become accustomed to the ability to choose the learning environments that align with their values and work best for their children, public support for the issue is likely to grow. At that point, the Democratic Party will have to choose whether to side with a key part of its political coalition or the majority of voters.
The story of the school-choice movement is still being written. But what has just transpired in North Carolina is likely to be remembered as a key turning point.
This piece originally appeared in the National Review