Voucher expansion and a state of emergency: public schools in 2023

Jessica Landis, center, with Chance Spieser, 3, and Harmony Spieser, a rising 5th grader in New Hanover County public schools. They attended a public school rally in Raleigh on June 21. (Photo by Michael McElroy)

By Michael McElroy

December 20, 2023

The Republican-controlled legislature helped wealthy families pay for private school, offered teacher raises that lag behind inflation, and continued to ignore court-orders to adequately fund public schools.

The North Carolina state constitution guarantees children in the state the fundamental right to a sound, basic education. But the biggest developments in education policy in the state in 2023 may have taken the state further away from delivering on that promise.

Perhaps we should start with the state of emergency.

In May, Gov. Roy Cooper declared an unusual state of emergency for public education, a designation normally slated for hurricanes and other natural disasters.

The Republican-controlled legislature at the time was set to pass several bills that Cooper and public school advocates said continued conservatives’ long term plan to starve public schools and replace them with a largely privatized system.

How? By expanding an existing voucher system so that even wealthy families could use tax dollars to send their kids to private schools. But the bills did not increase school funding to accommodate a voucher expansion, they simply diverted more money from the public school system.

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

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


Despite Cooper’s warnings, Republican supermajorities in the state legislature passed a bill that expands the voucher program, originally intended only for low-income families, to all families regardless of income. They also passed a state budget that includes millions of dollars more each year for the voucher program. Under the budget, within a few years, the state’s voucher program is expected to get more than $520 million each year, compared to $130 million in 2022-23

Republican leaders say voucher expansion gives 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. The increased funding will go mostly toward families who already send their kids to private schools, while depleting the resources of public schools that educate 80% of students in the state..

Dozens of bipartisan public school boards came out against expansion and critics pointed out that many of the private schools that would benefit openly discriminate against LGBTQ students and kids with disabilities.

There is also no evidence that children in private schools perform better than those in public schools.

Instead, voucher expansion, several studies show, hurt public schools.

Republicans, of course, passed these bills, including the state budget. They are now law.

But public schools were already underfunded before these bills.

Teacher pay

North Carolina public schools face severe teacher and staff shortages, especially in rural areas, in large part because the state ranks 45th in the nation in starting teacher pay.

When classes started in August, there were more than 2,800 K-12 teacher vacancies across the state’s 100-plus school districts. The problem is even worse in rural counties.

So lawmakers passed a budget in September that gives teachers a raise of about $80 a month, on average, after taxes. But the raises most teachers will get over the next two years do not keep pace with recent rates of inflation. Though inflation is beginning to slow now, the cost of school supplies, which teachers often buy themselves, was still increasing at a faster rate than teacher salaries when the budget passed.

Republican leaders said that the budget, which came three months late and several weeks after the start of the school year, was intended to address these issues.

It gives a bigger boost to salaries for new teachers, for example, than for veteran educators, an effort to draw more graduates into the profession. But retention is as much a part of the problem as recruiting.

“Our state budget is not just a mathematical document of figures and numbers. It is a representation of our values in this state,” Tamika Walker Kelly, the president of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), said at a rally in June.

“We all share a common goal: improving the outcomes and achievement of every single student in our state and ensuring that our students have a qualified educator in every classroom,” she said.

Cooper’s proposed budget, which Republicans rejected, would have given teachers an average raise of 18% over two years.

Bad with numbers

North Carolina ranks 48th in the US 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 how much it chooses to spend.

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

These decades of underfunding were so pronounced that several courts, including the state Supreme Court last year, ordered the General Assembly to spend more money on public schools. Judges even devised the “Leandro” plan, an equitable-funding roadmap, to show them how.

Republicans have ignored those court orders and when they won control of the state Supreme Court in the 2022 elections, the new court blocked the Leandro rulings. The state has the money to fund its public schools adequately and to solve these problems and implement the “Leandro” plan. The General Assembly—which controls the purse strings—just won’t.

The lack of proper funding has consequences.

All public schools in Alamance County delayed the start of the school year for two weeks because of widespread mold infestations in schools where roof damage and other issues have persisted for years, amid inadequate state support.

The already-dismal level of state funding for schools could get even worse in the future.

The legislature included large tax breaks in the budget, which would shrink the state’s income by 20% and further deplete the public school system’s chief source of funding.

The new budget means many public schools will have to make even more cuts than they already have, including eliminating arts and music programs—even sports and AP classes.

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 in May.

The 2024 elections

The story of defunding public schools is not likely to end with 2023.

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, the likely 2024 Republican candidate for governor, has accused North Carolina public school teachers of indoctrinating children, called for even more funding for private schools, and denied the undisputed science on climate change.

He has also suggested that students not be taught science or social studies until after the fifth grade.

Though he has tried to inch away from many of his most glaringly homophobic and anti-semitic social media posts, he has fully supported efforts to ban books about LGBTQ students or systemic racism, and backed legislation that could limit what teachers can teach and force them to out gay students to their parents.

And Republican leaders in the legislature have made it clear that they want to increase the emphasis on private schools even more after this two-year budget expires. If they expand their supermajority next November, or if Robinson wins the race for governor, they will no doubt do so.


  • 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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