N.C. Gov. Declares State of Emergency over School Choice Bill
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper (D) wants to abuse his emergency powers as an override-proof veto. A red banner over the governor’s website warns, “Gov. Cooper has declared that public education in North Carolina is facing a state of emergency and he urges North Carolinians to contact legislators.”
According to Cooper, “Legislative Republicans” caused the emergency for proposing legislation to establish universal school choice, roll back woke ideology, make the State Board of Education electorally accountable, and raise teachers’ salaries by less than Cooper would like. How scary! This is the first and only emergency declaration for which the action item is “contact your state legislators.”
When Cooper declared the public education emergency via a recorded address on Monday, it was immediately clear that this was no ordinary state of emergency. “There’s no Executive Order like with a hurricane or the pandemic” (or tropical storm, winter storm, or prolonged cold weather), Cooper stated in the second sentence. “But it’s no less important.” Really? Because not issuing an executive order — that is, doing anything to act upon the emergency declaration — makes it seem less important.
Under North Carolina law, during a state of emergency the governor has “additional powers … to utilize all available State resources as reasonably necessary to cope with an emergency, including the transfer and direction of personnel or functions of State agencies or units thereof for the purpose of performing or facilitating emergency services [and] to take such action and give such directions to State and local law enforcement officers and agencies as may be reasonable and necessary for the purpose of securing compliance with the provisions of this Article …”
In an emergency caused by a natural disaster, such powers are entirely sensible, reasonable, and life-saving. In an “emergency” caused by the legislature’s actions, could the governor interpret such powers to direct state employees in ways that put pressure on the legislature? For instance, could the governor direct law enforcement officers to stand down when a mob of angry protestors attempt to breach the legislative chambers or approach legislators? If Cooper contemplates such action, then there’s no need for an executive order now; by not issuing one, he also denies the legislature any grounds to sue to block his lawless declaration.
And it is lawless. The same law cited above defines “emergency” as:
“An occurrence or imminent threat of widespread or severe damage, injury, or loss of life or property resulting from any natural or man-made accidental, military, paramilitary, terrorism, weather-related, public health, explosion-related, riot-related cause, or technological failure or accident, including, but not limited to, a cyber incident, an explosion, a transportation accident, a radiological accident, or a chemical or other hazardous material incident.”
This definition self-evidently does not apply to bills considered in the legislature, which fall under none of the categories of possible causes — “accidental, military, paramilitary, terrorism, weather-related, public health, explosion-related, riot-related cause, or technological failure or accident.” Not that a legislature would ever enact such a law. Nor is there a category applying to public education. Just because the legislature’s education reforms are the governor’s bogeymen is not a legitimate reason to declare a state of emergency.
But Cooper didn’t seem interested in defending the legitimacy of his emergency declaration. Instead, he admitted that it amounted either to a public service announcement (PSA) or pure politics, depending on your policy outlook. “I’m declaring this state of emergency because you need to know what’s happening,” he said unashamedly. “If you care about public schools in North Carolina, it’s time to take immediate action and tell them to stop the damage that will set back our schools for a generation.” A governor doesn’t have to declare a state of emergency simply to issue a PSA.
Cooper’s policy rationale was just as partisan and unreasonable as the declaration itself. The “private school voucher scheme will pour your tax money into private schools that are unaccountable to the public,” he warned. “When kids leave public schools for private school, the public schools lose hundreds of millions of dollars.” This is both untrue and backwards at the same time.
Unspoken in Cooper’s demagoguery is the reason why students will “leave public schools for private school” — that private schools are more desirable because they provide higher quality education — because that would admit that school choice results in better education outcomes for the same cost to taxpayers (Cooper sent his own kid to private school, noted School Choice Now Senior Fellow Corey DeAngelis). Alternatively, public schools could retain students (and funding) under the scheme by improving the education they provide.
The dominating problem in American education is not that private schools are “unaccountable to the public,” but that public schools are; school vouchers introduce real accountability by creating real competition in the K-12 education market, enabling parents to reward whomever will supply their children with the best education. In other words, school vouchers are good for students, good for parents, good for accountability, and bad for monopolistic teachers’ unions — Cooper’s political base.
Cooper also complained about the legislature’s plan to reduce government spending, which he said amounted to dropping “an atomic bomb on public education.” When he got into the details however, he noted the Senate had proposed to raise teachers’ salaries, but not as fast as he wanted. The Associated Press outlines that Senate Republicans proposed a 4.5% pay increase for teachers (“which would lag behind recent inflation rates,” however), House Republicans proposed a 10.2% pay increase, and Cooper proposed a 18% pay increase. Cooper described this arcane budget dispute as “an atomic bomb” and declared a state of emergency over it, in order to get his way.
Cooper added, “Republicans in the legislature also want to bring their political culture wars into the classrooms. If they get their way, our State Board of Education will be replaced by political hacks who can dictate what is taught — and not taught — in our public schools.” Currently, the State Board of Education is comprised by the lieutenant governor, the state treasurer, and 11 members appointed by the governor and approved by the General Assembly for eight-year terms; Republicans in the legislature have proposed making the positions subject to election. If holding an elected office makes one a “political hack,” then what is the governor saying about himself?
The rhetoric deliberately suppresses what every parent already knows: political culture wars have already entered the classrooms, in the form of a radical left-wing agenda peddling critical race theory (CRT) concepts, LGBT ideology, and inappropriate sex ed as early as kindergarten. It also glosses over the fact that the officers “who can dictate what is taught” in schools — merely a cynical summary of the Board of Education’s reason for existence — are currently controlled by Governor Cooper, which means they are not politically accountable for the extremely political decisions they make. Cooper pretends that Republicans are politicizing education, when they are merely seeking to restore political accountability to an arena that is already political.
“I’m fighting back, and I need you to do it too,” Cooper’s address concluded. Only last week on May 16, Republicans in the North Carolina House and Senate voted to override Cooper’s veto of a bill to protect most unborn babies from abortion after 12 weeks’ gestation. The pro-life victory only became possible earlier this year after state Representative Tricia Cotham switched from the Democratic Party to the GOP, handing Republicans a slim legislative supermajority in both chambers. Even after an intense pressure campaign, Cooper failed to flip a single Republican vote to defeat the override attempt. Evidently, Cooper’s take-away from the episode was that he must do something more drastic to defeat the Republican supermajority.
Cooper has good reason to fear Republicans will hang together on school choice, as well. The bill passed the House last Wednesday largely along party lines, with one Democrat voting for it and one Republican not voting (nine members were absent). Cotham, the caucus’s newest member and theoretically one of its most moderate, is one of the primary House sponsors of the universal school choice bill (HB 823). She responded to Cooper’s emergency declaration by saying, “The true emergency here is that the Governor is advocating for systems rather than students themselves.”
Earlier this month, North Carolina Democratic Party Chair Anderson Clayton complained that Republicans passed the abortion bill “so rapidly” that voters had no opportunity to “put their input into what they would have liked to have seen out of this.” By this, Clayton meant something other than the constitutional process by which voters select representatives and senators to craft laws on their behalf, and by which a supermajority of the legislature (66% in North Carolina) can override a veto by the governor. This time around, Cooper decided to kickstart the Left’s aggressive lobbying (and intimidation, it’s hard to tell the difference these days) campaign by declaring the General Assembly’s proposed education reforms constituted a state of emergency.
For the self-styled defenders of democracy, the fact that the elected representatives chosen by North Carolina voters comprise a legislative supermajority from the other major political party represents an existential threat to democracy — or rather, their narrow political interests — and must be neutralized at all costs.
“Meaningless publicity stunts do nothing to improve educational outcomes in our state,” Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R) said in response to the emergency declaration. “The House and Senate will continue working together to put forward budget proposals that address the needs of students and parents.”
During a state of emergency triggered by severe weather, the North Carolina governor can order residents to shelter in place (or evacuate), control the distribution of key goods, and redeploy law enforcement personnel to maintain order and assist in emergency duties. During a state of emergency triggered by a political opponent’s proposed education reforms, the North Carolina governor has urged North Carolinians “to call, write, text or visit with your legislators and work to hold them accountable.” That’s lobbying and politics, not an emergency.
Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.