Republican Bills Would Drop ‘Atomic Bomb’ on Public Schools, Gov. Cooper Says

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper speaks at a news conference to unveil his two-year budget proposal at the Administration Building in Raleigh, N.C., on Wednesday, March 15, 2023. Cooper's spending plan would grow by well over 20% compared to this year's spending levels, including large raises for teachers and state employees and public education funding boosts to comply with the results of long-running litigation over education inequities. (AP Photo/Gary D. Robertson)

By Michael McElroy

May 22, 2023

The Republican-controlled General Assembly is set to pass legislation that further drains vital resources from an already underfunded public school system and diverts them to a private system teeming with money.

North Carolina public schools are facing a state of emergency, Gov. Roy Cooper said on Monday, but the impending disaster is far from natural. 

The Republican-controlled General Assembly is set to pass several bills this legislative session that further drain vital resources from an already underfunded public school system and divert them to a private system teeming with money.

“The Republican legislature is aiming to choke the life out of public education,” Cooper said in a video address to the state Monday afternoon. “The damage will set back our schools for a generation.

“When kids leave public schools for private school,” he added, “the public schools lose hundreds of millions of dollars.”

North Carolina public schools face severe teacher and staff shortages, especially in rural areas, and the state ranks dead last or near last in several national spending categories that measure how much states value their school-age children. But the impending bills, along with the proposed budgets from both the House and Senate, will make these problems worse while helping wealthy families pay for private school.

These efforts, Cooper, education advocates and public school officials have long said, amount to an organized effort to starve public schools and replace them with a largely privatized system.

HB 219, for example, would give private schools more access to public school money, without increasing the amount of total funding.

And HB 823 would end income limits for an existing private school voucher program, meaning even wealthy families would be eligible for taxpayer-funded scholarships to private schools. (Many of these schools are religious institutions that openly discriminate against LGTBQ students.)

Republican leaders say these bills give parents more choices of where to send their children, but in reality, there is not much of a choice for anyone other than the wealthy. Funding for public school systems will be depleted while private schools’ resources are engorged, public school advocates argue and several studies show.

“These ideas spell disaster that requires emergency action,” Cooper said.

But the governor also noted his options are limited. He instead urged North Carolinians to contact their lawmakers to “hold them accountable” and tell them to support public education.

“Public schools can survive this legislative session if we can limit the damage,” he said, but we all need to pull together to do it.”

A Growing Divide on Public Education

There is little in the bills or the Republican budget proposals that would fix the lingering problems in North Carolina that have only gotten worse in recent years.

The state ranks 48th in the U.S. in its per-pupil funding and is the worst in the nation in “school funding effort,” a metric that gauges not how much money a state has available to spend on education, but rather how much it chooses to spend.

These are not just wretched metrics, they are unconstitutional, several courts have ruled.

The state has the money to fund its public schools adequately and to solve these problems. The General Assembly—which controls the purse strings—just won’t.

Competing budgets from the Legislature and Cooper highlight the divide. 

Cooper’s budget would give teachers an average raise of 18% over two years. The House budget would give a 10% raise over the same time period, and the Senate allotted a 4.5% raise along with an increase in starting salary.

The Senate budget also allocates $27 million more to expand the private school voucher program than it does to implement the teacher pay raises, Education NC’s Hannah McClellan points out.

The legislature is also seeking to implement large tax breaks, the combination of which, Cooper said, would shrink the state’s budget 20% and “drop an atomic bomb on public education.”

Public schools would have to make even more cuts than they already have under current funding and many school systems would have to get rid of arts and music programs—even sports and AP classes.

Cooper also noted that there are more than 5,000 teacher vacancies in the state right now, “leaving tens of thousands of students without a qualified educator.”

Many schools also lack a sufficient quantity of nurses, counselors and even bus drivers, and less money would mean even more problems than schools already face.

“Our children need us right now,” Cooper said.


  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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