IN PRINT: Crosscurrents in education

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by Jordan Green

Judge Robert H. Hobgood’s temporary injunction halting North Carolina’s newly enacted voucher program on Feb. 21 delivered a rare victory to the multiracial progressive coalition led by the state NAACP.

The state began taking applications for the program on Feb. 1 and was set to begin awarding vouchers of up to $4,200 to students from households that qualify for the free and reduced lunch proram — $44,123 for a family of four — on March 3. All that is on hold now.

The voucher program, slipped into the budget, passed without debate by the Republican legislative supermajority and signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory last year, prompted lawsuits by North Carolina teachers and school boards, including the governing body for Guilford County Schools. The plaintiffs charge that in diverting public funds to private schools the program violates the state constitution, which they argue requires that taxpayer funds “be used for the education of the state’s children” exclusively “through a general and uniform system of free public schools.”

The state NAACP filed what’s known as a “friend of the court” brief on Feb. 1, linking the current voucher scheme to previous efforts to thwart school desegregation by enabling white parents to transfer their children into private schools. The courts eventually struck down the Pearsall Plan, in which white students were to receive vouchers to transfer to private schools.

The NAACP’s stance pits the organization against two young and ambitious black Democratic state legislators from the Triad: Rep. Marcus Brandon, a two-term lawmaker from High Point, is running for Congress in the 12th Congressional District, while Rep. Ed Hanes Jr. of Winston-Salem is seeking re-election to a second term in the state House. Brandon and Hanes sponsored the Opportunity Scholarship Act, which contained almost identical language to the voucher provision eventually approved with the budget.

Hanes relocated to the exclusive Buena Vista neighborhood in Winston-Salem after winning election in 2012, and he told me last spring that he didn’t think it was fair that he could move his family to a neighborhood with good public schools, while the children of less fortunate parents made do with low-performing schools. How could he deny other parents the same choice that he and his family exercised just because they happened to be poor?

That argument aligns neatly with a prepared statement by a staff attorney for the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, which is helping the state of North Carolina defend against the voucher lawsuit. “Most Americans already have school choice: They choose to live in a good school district or they can afford private school,” staff attorney Renée Flaherty said. “School choice is widespread — unless you’re poor. Through the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the North Carolina General Assembly is giving low-income families the same educational choices that wealthier children already enjoy.”

The billionaire Koch brothers, notorious for their sophisticated campaign-finance apparatus to promote deregulation and austerity, provided initial seed funding and continued financial support to the institute.

I asked Brandon if he thought the agenda of the libertarian financiers behind the school-choice movement meshed with his desire to help children in low-performing public schools in High Point.

“If you remove yourself from the table then you allow people that have power to control the agenda,” he told me. “I don’t know what their agenda is.”

Brandon’s response to the objections raised by progressives — that vouchers are part of a scheme to de-fund and re-segregate public education — is that both of those regressions have already come to pass. He doesn’t shrink from the idea of privatizing education.

“We have public-private partnerships in every other realm,” Brandon told. “We do it in economic development and healthcare. If you ever want to pay teachers what they’re worth, you can’t just do it through the General Assembly.”

A 1999 document by school-choice proponents Stephen Sugarman and John Coons seems to anticipate Brandon and Hanes.

“For school choice the trick will be to persuade the identified liberal to initiate action upon his or her own advertised concern for the non-rich,” the authors state. “The invitation to share in the drafting process may be the incentive to bring the skittish liberal across the line.”

The NAACP’s amicus brief quotes the document to rather devastating effect: “The conservative commitment to the project is necessary but should remain mute until the coalition has secured leadership whose party affiliation, social class or race — preferably all three — displays what the media will interpret as concern for the disadvantaged.”