Gov. Cooper’s first School Choice Week proclamation prompts questions, surprise

Cooper has been actively opposed to school choice options during his tenure as governor

Gov. Roy Cooper speaks during a press conference at the Community School for People Under Six in Carrboro, N.C. on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. (Julia Wall/The News & Observer via AP)

RALEIGH — For the first time during his tenure as North Carolina’s governor, Roy Cooper has issued a proclamation supporting School Choice Week. 

The N.C. Association for Public Charter Schools, led by Rhonda Dillingham, has asked for a School Choice Week proclamation from Cooper every year since he took office in 2017, but this is the first time he’s actually done it. 

The annual nationwide school choice celebration will take place all week from Jan. 23 -29. In North Carolina, more than 830 statewide and local events are scheduled to take place. 

“We are excited that North Carolina families are speaking up for school choice and we’re grateful to Gov. Cooper for issuing this proclamation,” Andrew Campanella, president of National School Choice Week, said in a news release. “As parents and educators know well, each child is unique. Having an array of educational options gives parents the freedom to choose what helps their children succeed. We hope the Week is an opportunity for North Carolina parents, and all parents, to learn more about their school options.” 

According to Shelby Doyle, the public awareness director for National School Choice Week, Cooper “joins more than 20 other Democratic and Republican governors around the country in issuing these proclamations.” 

Doyle said their organization annually reaches out to every governor to request a proclamation recognizing National School Choice Week. She also said they will be “rolling out more proclamations in the coming days.” 

North Carolina State Superintendent Catherine Truitt issued a statement on Facebook thanking Cooper for the proclamation and stating that, “School Choice is an important way to ensure we are serving every student in our state and empowering them to succeed post-graduation.” 

“School choice has been a priority of this legislature, and we have fought hard for programs like opportunity scholarships that provide families with a choice when it comes to how students learn,” House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain) said in a statement to North State Journal. “I am encouraged that our Governor is expressing his support for school choice, and I am optimistic about the future for our students as school choice continues to expand across our state.” 

Lindalyn Kakadelis, the executive director for the North Carolina Coalition for Charter Schools, also sent Cooper a letter thanking him for his proclamation. 

Others, however, are not sold on Cooper’s sudden support for school choice. 

Dr. Terry Stoops, Director for the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation, is skeptical but hopeful about the proclamation. 

“While Gov. Cooper’s motives for signing the proclamation remain a mystery, I think North Carolina families should celebrate his newfound commitment to protecting and expanding educational options for their children,” Stoops told North State Journal. 

A recent blog post by Stoops outlined Cooper’s long-standing opposition to Opportunity Scholarships. 

“I’m ecstatic that Gov. Cooper finally acknowledges that educational options enhance North Carolina’s economic prosperity and the welfare of our diverse communities,” said Stoops. “As such, I expect the governor will cease presenting budgets that phase out private school scholarship programs and instead work with Republican lawmakers to continue expanding them.”  

Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-Watauga), who chairs the Education/Higher Education Committee, sent the governor a letter questioning his proclamation. 

“You recently issued a supportive proclamation declaring a statewide ‘School Choice Week.’ Yet you have consistently opposed school choice policies like the Opportunity Scholarship program, which provide grants to lower-income families so they can send their children to a private school if they so choose,” wrote Ballard. “Your budgets have proposed eliminating or severely curtailing Opportunity Scholarships, and you have made many public statements voicing your opposition to the program.” 

Ballard gave an example, quoting Cooper in 2020 saying, “I think that [the Opportunity Scholarship Program] is an expense that we should stop in North Carolina.” 

The Watauga senator also asked the governor whether or not his proclamation means his administration now supports the school choice movement, and how that fits with his stance on the Opportunity Scholarship program.  

“If you remain opposed to school choice policies like Opportunity Scholarships, why did you issue a proclamation supportive of the school choice movement?” Ballard asked. 

Ballard didn’t receive a direct response from the governor, but instead a letter from Geoff Coltrane, Cooper’s senior education adviser.  

Coltrane wrote about the “challenging past two years” in his Jan. 21 response. He then went on to praise certain types of school choice options, such as magnet schools and early colleges. Coltrane stated, “The Governor has long been supportive of this type of innovation in our public schools and public charter schools.” 

In the very next paragraph, Coltrane affirmed that Cooper’s past opposition to Opportunity Scholarships for low-income students will continue. 

“As you know from the Governor’s budget proposals, he opposes and will continue to oppose the expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship program,” Coltrane wrote to Ballard, adding claims that the program “provides public funding to unaccountable non-public institutions for the education of students.”  

A recent analysis by EdChoice of the OSP and the Special Education Scholarship Grants for Children with Disabilities revealed a cumulative net savings to taxpayers of $154.3 million.

Critics have called Cooper’s OSP funding attacks hypocritical because he sent one of his daughters to the exclusive St. Mary’s School located in Raleigh.

Coltrane went a step further, claiming, “In fact, the Opportunity Scholarship Program is the only program of its kind nationally that is not structured to allow for a rigorous evaluation of student performance.” 

North Carolina private schools are required by law to administer a nationally standardized test or a nationally recognized equivalent measurement in English, reading, and math to all students in grades 3, 6, 9, and 11.  

As both Ballard and Coltrane’s letters pointed out, Cooper has a history of attempting to dismantle the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), which offers grants to low-income students to attend the school of their choice.  

Cooper told The Associated Press before his Jan. 1 inauguration, “Obviously there will be no voucher funding in any budget that I propose with the General Assembly.” 

Once elected, Cooper kept that promise. His budget proposals have either attempted to defund, reduce or freeze OSP funding at current levels. His 2021 budget proposal reduced funding to allow for “gradual elimination” for the program. However, the legislative budget he signed increased the grant amounts. 

During his first year as governor, Cooper sued Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Eden) in an attempt to stop expansion of the OSP, which had more than 6,200 students enrolled at the time with annually increasing waitlists. In 2018, a Superior Court three-judge panel ruled 2-1 against the governor’s complaint. At the time of that ruling, enrollment in the OSP had risen to more than 6,770. 

About A.P. Dillon 656 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_