NC Rep. Tricia Cotham’s defection to GOP clears way for massive expansion of school vouchers

A Charlotte-area state legislator’s recent decision to switch parties just months after being elected as a Democrat all but assures a massive expansion of North Carolina taxpayer dollars flowing into school vouchers. 

In addition to increasing funding for vouchers by hundreds of millions of dollars per year, the recently filed bill eliminates income eligibility requirements so that any student in the state–regardless of financial need–may use public money to attend private schools.

Governor Roy Cooper has vetoed previous attempts to expand school vouchers.  However, Mecklenburg County Representative Tricia Cotham’s recent defection to the Republican Party gave the GOP a supermajority in the state legislature and makes it much more likely the bill will become law.

A history rooted in racism

The roots of school vouchers in our country can be traced back to the wake of Brown vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court court case in which justices ruled that racial segregation of children in public schools violated the Constitution.  

Following this ruling, white leaders in many communities tried all kinds of devious ways to subvert it.  In Prince Edward County, Virginia, those efforts included eliminating taxes in order to defund schools and closing them rather than simply allowing racial integration.  

After pressure by the courts to comply with Brown increased, the Virginia state legislature created a “tuition grant program” which provided funding for students to attend private schools or public schools in other areas.  In Prince Edward County, black students were denied access to those tuition grants.

Most voucher funds in NC used by white students

White flight is not as socially acceptable as it once was, and modern-day proponents of school vouchers often sell them as an equalizer that allows students of color to opt out of struggling traditional public schools.  However, in North Carolina, the majority of voucher funds go to white students–despite the fact that students of color form a majority of the k-12 student racial demographics.

Vouchers fund religious schools that discriminate

Another problem with expansion of vouchers in North Carolina is that this practice directs public dollars to private schools which focus on religious teaching and are legally able to discriminate against children.

This year’s top recipient of North Carolina voucher funds ($2,261,497) is Grace Christian School in Sanford. Check out Grace’s Educational Objectives page:

Fayetteville Christian School is pocketing a cool $1,336,793 in taxpayer funding this school year. Here’s their policy on religious discrimination and what they’ll do if they find out that Heather has two mommies:

The student and at least one parent with whom the student resides must be in full agreement with the FCS Statement of Faith and have received Jesus Christ as their Savior. In addition, the parent and student must regularly fellowship in a local faith based, Bible believing church. Accordingly, FCS will not admit families that belong to or express faith in non-Christian religions such as, but not limited to: Mormons (LDS Church), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims (Islam), non-Messianic Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. Furthermore, students and families are expected to manifest by example Christian virtue in their lives both in and out of school by living life according to Biblical truth. Accordingly, FCS will not admit families that engage in illicit drug use, sexual promiscuity, homosexuality (LGBT) or other behaviors that Scripture defines as deviate and perverted. Once admitted, if the student or parent/guardian with whom the student resides becomes involved in any of the above activities it will be grounds for dismissal of the student/family from the school.

The real problems traditional public schools face

A common refrain for school privatizers is to say we just need to provide more choice and let the free market figure it out. And we have to acknowledge that many of our traditional public schools are struggling. But rather than opportunistically siphoning away their funding, let’s take an honest look at why those schools may be struggling.

The party that Representative Cotham just joined and handed a veto-proof majority to has maintained a gerrymandered stranglehold on power in North Carolina since 2010. During that time our state legislature has passed law after law that has made it harder to attract and retain excellent teachers:

‣ Cut master’s pay supplement and longevity pay
‣ Revoked retiree health benefits
‣ Eliminated due process rights
‣ Gutted Teaching Fellows program
‣ Removed state funding for professional development

Besides running off good teachers, lawmakers have enacted other policy changes that harm student learning:

‣ Uncapped class sizes grades 4-12
‣ Cut 7,000 teaching assistants
‣ Slashed funding for school technology and classroom supplies
‣ Increased volume of standardized testing

Since they took power, Republicans have repeatedly cut taxes on both corporations and wealthy individuals, depriving public schools of billions of dollars in sorely needed revenue. In just a few years North Carolina’s corporate income tax will be eliminated entirely.

Republican lawmakers have also regularly thumbed their noses at court decisions demanding increased investment in public education, with Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger saying, “If judges want to get into the field of appropriating, they need to run for the legislature.”

Reversing the above changes that have devastated public education in North Carolina would be a good start toward improving the education students can get in traditional public schools.

Of course, doing so would require state legislators who actually *want* strong public schools.

If you object to your public tax dollars funding religious education and discriminatory admissions practices, please contact your state legislator and urge them to oppose expansion of school vouchers.

Senate contact info
House contact info

If you’re interested in sharing your thoughts with Representative Cotham over her betrayal of campaign donors and volunteers as well as the Mecklenburg County voters who elected her to a Democratic seat by a nearly 20% margin over her Republican opponent, her email address is:

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