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Legislative Democrats stand up for school choice

African-American lawmakers use press conference to push for expanded choice for low-income children

Rep. Rodney Moore, D-Mecklenburg, on Feb. 28, 2017 declared support for more school choice options in North Carolina. (CJ Photo by Kari Travis)
Rep. Rodney Moore, D-Mecklenburg, on Feb. 28, 2017 declared support for more school choice options in North Carolina. (CJ Photo by Kari Travis)

Democratic lawmakers don’t necessarily oppose school choice, and some are vocal advocates.

Eight outspoken African-American legislators Tuesday announced their support for traditional public and charter schools, private schools, school vouchers, homeschools, and other education options.

“We stand today to be a voice for the voiceless,” said Rep. Rodney Moore, D-Mecklenburg. “Far too often, families and children are left out of the education decision-making process.”

Other legislators who attended the media event included Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, D-Northampton; Sen. Joel Ford, D-Mecklenburg; Sen. Ben Clark, D-Cumberland; Rep. Ed Hanes, D-Forsyth; Rep. Elmer Floyd, D-Cumberland; Rep. Cecil Brockman, D-Guilford; and Rep. Kelly Alexander, D-Mecklenburg.

Historically, Democrats and Republicans have butted heads over charter schools and private school vouchers, but lawmakers, in this case, are seemingly open to compromise.

Gov. Roy Cooper opposes the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program, a voucher system providing low-income students with up to $4,200 a year for private school tuition.

Traditional public schools need more money, Cooper says, so private schools should not get public funding.

That argument is flawed, Clark said.

“You often hear people say, ‘I don’t want my public dollars going to private schools.’ But what they fail to understand is that those public dollars are going to educate the children who are part of our citizenry. Expenditure of public funds for a public cause is a great thing, and I can think of no greater cause than the education of our children.”

Privileged families have options while low-income families and students are less likely to escape under-performing schools, he said.

“It’s time for us to adopt a paradigm in which school-choice options are not viewed in an adversarial light.”

The answer to better education won’t be found in political squabbles, Moore said.

“It is our hope that — by uniting together in support of all quality educational models … we begin to bridge the gaps that have far too often hindered us — black versus white students, Democrat versus Republican, and traditional schools versus non-traditional schools.”

Hanes said Winston-Salem’s poor neighborhoods afford little choice to students who wish to escape low-performing schools.

Some traditional public schools carry third-grade reading proficiencies — ranging from eight to 22 percent — and that’s not a learning environment any parent should be forced to accept, he said.

“That is [as much as] a 92 percent fail rate. I cannot in good conscience look at any mother and father and tell them that they should be satisfied with that. None of us would invest our money with a broker who had a 92 percent fail rate. It wouldn’t happen.”

Such Democratic support of school choice is historic, said Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, or PEFNC, which organized the event.

PEFNC has since 2005 worked to enlist Democrats that would back more educational options in North Carolina, Allison said.

“When we started, I had Republicans slap me on the back and say, ‘Darrell, given the [political] dynamic you have in the state, this isn’t going to happen,’” he told Carolina Journal.

But Allison never accepted the notion charter schools and school vouchers are partisan issues.

“We believe that … school choice cuts across political lines, racial lines, socioeconomic lines. In fact, it’s not a Republican thing or a Democrat thing. We believe that it is simply the right thing for family. I personally don’t take lightly standing here with these African-American legislators.”