The Rev. William Barber, president of the NC NAACP and initiator of the Moral Monday protests, continued his attack Tuesday on what he called “a monster voter suppression bill” and likened efforts to award Opportunity Scholarships to children from low-income families to segregationist actions of the 1950s and 1960s.
Barber referred to Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and the two GOP legislative leaders — House Speaker Thom Tillis of Mecklenburg County and Senate President Pro-tem Phil Berger of Rockingham County — as “extremists.”
“You cannot dismiss the racialized components of what McCrory and Tillis and Berger and the extremists are doing,” Barber said.
At times, Barber appeared to be trying to coach the journalists gathered for the press conference on how to frame their stories. He suggested that they look at the state’s racial history when it comes to covering stories on measures approved in 2013 by the General Assembly, including school vouchers and the broad election law changes, such as a requirement that voters present state-issued photo identification at the polls.
Barber said reporters should look at the current voucher proposal through the state’s racial history.
“Don’t let them get away with misportraying what this is all about,” Barber said.
Specifically, he referred to the Pearsall Plan, adopted in the 1950s, which attempted to provide state tuition for children to attend private schools so they could avoid attending integrated schools as a result of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
According to the N.C. History Project, Democratic Govs. William Umstead and Luther Hodges created committees chaired by Thomas Pearsall to oversee the state’s response to the Brown decision. Pearsall was a Rocky Mount farmer and former House speaker. The Pearsall Plan was ruled unconstitutional in 1969.
Barber was joined in the press conference by Elizabeth Haddix, an attorney with the UNC Center for Civil Rights, Jessica Homes, an attorney with the N.C. Association of Educators, Tim Tyson, an author and historian, and NAACP attorney Adam Stein.
Holmes said that the voucher program would not work for poorer children.
“The assertion that the voucher program is for the poor is simply not true,” Holmes said, arguing that the $4,200 scholarship would not cover the cost of tuition that most private schools charge.
To qualify for an Opportunity Scholarship, children must qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches. Holmes said that growing up, she qualified for free or reduced-priced lunches. “From my perspective, my situation, I would not have been able to take advantage of this voucher program,” Holmes said.
Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, which supports the Opportunity Scholarships, disputed the assertion that the vouchers wouldn’t help children from low-income families attend private schools.
“There are about 80 or so (private) schools that are in the $12,000-plus price range,” Allison said. When you throw out those schools, there are about 550 private schools where the median cost is $4,900, he said.
Allison noted that more than 4,000 children had applied for 2,400 Opportunity Scholarships before Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood last week put a halt to the program by issuing a preliminary injunction against the program.
“We had almost twice the amount of families that were allotted,” Allison said. “There is real pent-up demand for this.”
Barber also said that minority children were being used to get sympathy for voucher programs.
“The pro-voucher advocates admit to needing minority spokespeople to legitimize themselves,” Barber said.
Allison responded that the pro-voucher effort in North Carolina has been a grass-roots movement.
“There’s no denying the fact that the families that take advantage of this are mainly families of color and low income,” Allison said. He said that is true in other areas of the country where vouchers are used, such as Milwaukee, Wis., Florida, and the District of Columbia.
“At some point, we have to give real opportunities, and hopes of finding a solution,” Allison said. “The Opportunity Scholarship program is not the silver bullet. But it will be the solution for quite a few people if we allow that to happen.”
Barber also criticized the state, particularly legislative leaders, for objecting to demands from the NAACP to provide background documents used by legislators when preparing the voter ID and election law legislation.
Legislators have based their opposition on the principles of separation of powers and legislative privilege.
Barber noted that the legislators campaigned on a platform of enacting a voter ID requirement. “Now that they have done it, they want immunity,” Barber said. “That’s extraordinary. … That’s deeply troubling.”
Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said state legislators have similar legal rights to members of Congress.
“Whenever the U.S. is sued on any legislation that has been passed by Congress, you never see members deposed, because that’s not relevant,” von Spakovsky said.
Von Spakovsky said that Barber, by making that assertion, does not understand the law.
“He doesn’t seem to believe in some of the basic principles that govern this nation, like separation of powers,” von Spakovsky said.
Barry Smith (@Barry_Smith) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.