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Gov. Cooper visits Fayetteville, says tax-funded vouchers for private school tuition hurt public schools

Governor meets students and teachers at E.E. Smith High School and flies a drone


Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper visited Fayetteville’s E.E. Smith High School on Tuesday to reiterate his call for North Carolina to stop spending taxpayer money on private schools until the public schools receive what he considers to be sufficient funding.

“Let me be clear: I am not against private schools. I think they have their place, and people should be able to choose them,” Cooper said after visiting several classrooms and meeting students, faculty and staff at E.E. Smith. “But I am against taxpayer money going to private schools at the expense of public schools. And therefore I am proposing putting a moratorium on private school vouchers until we fully fund our public schools.”

In the ongoing lawsuit known as “Leandro,” which originated in Hoke County in 1994, the North Carolina Supreme Court is deliberating on whether the state legislature is spending enough money on the public schools to comply with the public education mandates in the North Carolina Constitution. The state Constitution says the government must provide a free and uniform system of public schools.

The governor spoke to a mostly receptive audience of Cumberland County schools staff, the county’s Superintendent Marvin Connelly Jr., Cumberland County commissioners, Fayetteville City Council members and Mayor Mitch Colvin, and members of the county Board of Education. Cooper held a Q&A with local news reporters afterward.

Should private schools get taxpayer dollars?

North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship school voucher program, first enacted by the Republican majority in the North Carolina legislature in 2013, gives taxpayer money to families that send their children to private schools to help them pay the tuition costs. It was vastly expanded in 2023.

The program’s website says the vouchers run from $3,000 to $7,000, and vary based on the family’s income. Lower income families get larger vouchers.

As of Jan. 23, North Carolina had 32,341 students in the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program, receiving $150.1 million.

Cumberland County had the most students in North Carolina in the program, 2,552. Private schools as a group here took in the most money statewide, $11.9 million, a map on the Opportunity Scholarship program’s website says.

In general, the voucher program has been supported by Republicans and opposed by Democrats.

The North Carolina Constitution mandates that the state and local governments provide a free public school system.

Republicans and others on the political right argue that school funding should follow students to whichever school they attend, public or private, and that tax-funded vouchers give parents more freedom to choose where their children get educated.

Democrats and those on the political left, including Cooper, contend the voucher program sucks money away from the public schools. The state funds the public schools based in part on the size of their enrollment.

“The legislature plans to divert $4 billion to private school vouchers over the next decade,” Cooper said. “And in the first full year of the private school voucher scheme, Cumberland County schools will lose $17.2 million.”

A memo prepared by the Office of State Management and Budget said that figure is a 5% reduction in spending for Cumberland County’s schools. The calculation assumes enrollment in the county’s public schools would decline by 2,235 students in the 2026-27 fiscal year as parents shift their children to private schools. The memo says in 2022-23, the county’s public schools had 47,879 students.

It’s wrong to take money from public schools and give it to private schools, the governor said, “particularly when most private schools are not better and do not perform better than the public schools.”

Studies of voucher programs in Louisiana, Ohio and Indiana found that students using vouchers to attend private schools are performing poorly, Cooper said.

“But in North Carolina, with this voucher plan that’s just been passed by the legislature, we won’t know how the students are doing, because the private schools that take this public taxpayer voucher money don’t have to tell the taxpayers anything about what they do with the money,” he said.

“In fact, private schools don’t have to have licensed teachers, don’t have to provide meals, transportation, services for the disabled,” Cooper said. “Don’t have to tell taxpayers what they teach, how they perform, which students they’re going to accept or reject or accept, or whether their students show up at all.”

Do vouchers violate families’ religious liberties?

In 2020, a Randolph County parent said in a lawsuit that she tried to use the Opportunity Scholarship program to pull her autistic son out of the public schools and enroll him in one of her local private schools that were taking the taxpayer-funded vouchers.

“She is explicitly barred from having her children attend most Randolph County private schools because she is not a Christian,” the lawsuit said.

This same lawsuit listed eight Cumberland County private schools that accepted the taxpayer dollars yet refused to enroll the children of some taxpayers based on how the taxpayers’ exercised their constitutionally protected right to freedom of religion.

The plaintiffs dropped their lawsuit in April 2023.

Cooper has declared 2024 to be the “Year of Public Schools” in North Carolina, and this week is national Public Schools Week.

National School Choice Week was in January. School choice advocates promote policies that give parents options among traditional public schools, public charter schools, private schools, magnet schools, online schools, homeschooling and other forms of childhood education.

E.E. Smith High School student Roman Jackson shows North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper how to fly an airplane as Cooper takes a spin on a flight simulator in the school's aviation classroom on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. Cooper, a Democrat, visited E.E. Smith in Fayetteville to promote public schools and criticize tax-funded Opportunity Scholarship vouchers that use tax money to pay the tuition at private schools. The vouchers were created by the Republican-majority N.C. General Assembly.
E.E. Smith High School student Roman Jackson shows North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper how to fly an airplane as Cooper takes a spin on a flight simulator …
Gov. Cooper in the classrooms

Prior to his presentation and news conference, Cooper visited a Spanish language class, an Air Force ROTC class, and an aviation classroom.

The aviation classroom had drone aircraft, drone flying simulators and flight simulators for full-sized planes.

There, the governor flew a small drone under the guidance of student Jasmin Papaleo — with Cooper saying it was his first drone flight. Then Cooper took the controls of a flight simulator, and student Roman Jackson showed him how to fly in the virtual sky around Raleigh-Durham International Airport. 

Aviation instructor Probyn Thompson III, a retired Air Force pilot, briefly spoke with Cooper about bringing more aviation professionals into the classroom.

In an interview afterward with CityView, Thompson said there must be a means to get professionals of all sorts to come to the schools.

People in various industries, he said, could be offered sabbaticals from their jobs — “hey, come in and teach for a year” —  to bring their knowledge and skills to the next generation.

Senior reporter Paul Woolverton can be reached at 910-261-4710 and pwoolverton@cityviewnc.com.

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e.e. smith, education, governor, roy cooper, cumberland, fayetteville, school vouchers, opportunity scholarships