No crisis like COVID is accelerating a greater demand for school choice in North Carolina. The continued stoppage of in-person instruction in many counties has helped highlight — not only the political nature of many schools — but a bureaucratic inefficiency as well. Still, the best argument for school choice expansion might be our current cultural crisis with the collapse of civics, particularly among younger citizens.
In a recent podcast titled “An Exhaustion Civilization,“ Victor Davis Hanson, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, highlighted the depth of today’s ignorance with an anecdote from Dunn, North Carolina in 2019:
“When we see people tear down William C. Lee’s statue — a World War II logistics general — and you think he’s Robert E. Lee, it’s sort of right out of Shakespeare’s Caesar where they kill Cinna the poet instead of Cinna the conspirator and they say one sin is the same as the other; that’s pretty much where we are.”
Lee played a pivotal role in organizing the 101st Airborne Division and commanded the esteemed unit for parts of World War II. He was born in Dunn and died there. The general’s statue was torched and vandalized outside the Airborne museum named for him. Lee’s statue wasn’t toppled entirely, but the overall point is symbolic of much of the highly politicized outrage and ignorance in our present era.
Amazingly, a 2014 study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center noted that a quarter of Americans are unable to name the three branches of government. Given recent events, it’s hard to surmise there has been any improvement since the study. Only a third of Americans can pass a multiple-choice test consisting of questions taken from our citizenship test. Unfortunately, even if an improvement in civic knowledge emerges, there is no longer broad agreement about what those facts or ideals even mean. That some school districts in the state think the agenda-driven 1619 Project is an adequate response to the dearth of civic instruction and knowledge only serves to reinforce the need for more educational options.
In an increasingly ideologically diverse society, it makes even more sense for education dollars to follow the child and not merely to prop up an educational system packaged as one-size-fits-all. If parents want to send their child or children to a school that will champion and not scoff at America’s founding principles, there is no legitimate reason a bureaucratic system should halt it. In fact, if the government should promote any values, that one is a worthwhile aspiration. Of course, parents becoming more proactive in making decisions on the purpose of education is a positive trait for the common good. That we too often view education of the young as a function primarily of experts or central planners has undoubtedly played a role in the flatlining of student achievement.
For North Carolina, one highly popular policy program that can be further expanded is the state Opportunity Scholarship Program. Launched in 2014, the program provides vouchers to lower-income households. The General Assembly has slowly pushed the income limits upward, but the benefits of vouchers are stymied if they are not accessible to the broader public. The Opportunity Scholarship Program will still only serve 36,000 students by the 2028-29 school year. There are almost a million and a half students in North Carolina’s traditional public schools.
Conservatives in state government should be more aggressive in passing school choice legislation. While Gov. Roy Cooper was re-elected fairly easily, school choice is a political issue he has consistently lost on because his inflexible opposition remains unpopular. His politicization of the issue and gamble that voters would turn out legislators who didn’t cede to all his educational demands never materialized in the 2020 election.
The pandemic has further exposed the pitfalls of static education systems in North Carolina. Whether it was necessary, the mass cancellation of in-person learning will stunt student achievement and damage the well-being of many young people for years to come. Yet, the crisis of civic illiteracy remains just as relevant with potentially even graver consequences for the state and republic. Don’t believe me? Just jump on social media or watch the news. If freedom-minded citizens and conservative lawmakers are going to make more progress on school choice, sounding the alarm on the civic illiteracy crisis must be a top priority.
Ray Nothstine is Carolina Journal opinion editor.