Gov. Roy Cooper says he wants to defund North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship program against the will of North Carolina’s conservative legislative majority.

“Obviously there will be no voucher funding in any budget that I propose with the General Assembly,” Cooper told The Associated Press before his Jan. 1 inauguration.

Cooper’s statement previews more than a partisan scuffle. It also raises questions about the security of roughly 5,300 low-income students who now depend upon Opportunity Scholarships to attend private schools of their choosing.

And it comes against the backdrop of National School Choice Week, a celebration beginning today of state-funded education alternatives such as charter schools and school vouchers.

North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship program, active since 2015, gives low-income students up to $4,200 per year to pay for tuition, transportation, and other private-school expenses.

If the funding is withdrawn, the recipients would have to return to public schools, which is neither good for students nor taxpayers, said Raleigh attorney Paul “Skip” Stam, former state House majority leader.

“Opportunity Scholarships already are banked into the law, so [Cooper] would have to have a provision in his budget to defund them,” Stam told Carolina Journal.

The cost-per-student in traditional public schools is much higher than the $4,200 scholarship, so Cooper would have to find room in the budget to cover the difference. The state would spend more money if it had to educate those students in public schools, Stam said.  

The vouchers are funded for 10 years, and the program’s budget will increase by $10 million every year through 2027. A total of $145 million is appropriated to provide scholarships for 36,000 children over the next decade.

Cooper’s likely attempt to undermine the program raises questions about what would happen if the law were challenged again in the North Carolina Supreme Court, said John Hood, president of the John William Pope Foundation.

The Opportunity Scholarship program launched officially in 2014, but a constitutional challenge stalled proceedings until the next year. The case went before the state’s highest court, where justices, in a 4-3 vote, declared it constitutional. School-choice advocates in the state legislature lauded the decision.

But the governor will block the program in any way possible, and simply defunding school vouchers probably won’t work. The state legislature’s Republican majority would override the decision in their final budget, Hood said.

“I don’t believe the fact that Cooper includes [no funding] in his budget is really a fatal issue, because the legislature will just do away with it,” he said. “But it does illustrate the kind of conflict that you should expect every year under a Democratic governor. He’s not going to accept the argument for the existence of Opportunity Scholarships. The Left is not going to accept without challenge the existence of Opportunity Scholarships. They thought they might win under the previous Supreme Court. They didn’t.”

The Supreme Court tilted left in November when Wake County Superior Court Judge Mike Morgan, a Democrat, beat defeated former Associate Justice Bob Edmunds, a Republican.

Because school vouchers were declared constitutional by the state’s highest court, said Stam, another challenge isn’t likely.

Lisa Snell, director of education and childhood welfare at the Reason Foundation, told CJ that North Carolina’s voucher program is safe from another Supreme Court battle. But, she said, legislators should prepare for other action from Cooper.

“The question is, can the governor reverse the funding in some way?” Snell said. “I think he could say, ‘I want to pass a law that gets rid of the program — that no longer appropriates it.’ If he wanted to do something, I would think that he would take a direct hit at the program at this point.”

Cooper hasn’t specified exactly how his budget would deal with the scholarships.

President Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as education secretary has probably caused some extra “hand-wringing” over school-choice issues, Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, told CJ.

Such squabbles distract from the most important part of the discussion, Horn said.

“Why don’t we focus on outcomes for kids? Let’s focus on that and keep that as the most important issue,” Horn said. “I think that public education is not only a fundamental requirement by our constitution, but all of the public education is a civil rights issue. It’s an economics issue. And it’s the right thing to do. But not everything works for everyone. And our obligation under the state constitution is to provide a quality education … and what works well for Sally might not work so well for Lisa. And my job is to get each and every one of those kids the education that they deserve.”