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North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper declares a "State of Emergency for Public Education" on May 22, 2023. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper declares a "State of Emergency for Public Education" on May 22, 2023.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper declares a "State of Emergency for Public Education" on May 22, 2023.

Paul Specht
By Paul Specht September 21, 2023

Attack ad exaggerates effects of school choice bill, Cooper's opposition

If Your Time is short

  • The ad alludes to a bill that would expand North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship program.
  • The program already provides private school tuition vouchers to lower-income families.
  • Cooper opposes the bill but hasn’t blocked it, in part because it hasn’t come to his desk.

A controversial new television ad that draws imagery from Alabama’s famous school segregation battle says North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper is preventing poor families from accessing public money for private schools. 

"Gov. Roy Cooper is blocking a pioneering school choice bill that would give thousands of low-income parents the funds to allow their kids to get a high-quality education — and a chance for a better life," a narrator says in the ad. 

Conservative group Unleash Prosperity Now launched the ad as part of its national campaign attacking Democrats who oppose school choice bills. 

Text displayed on the ad cites a May 23 Christian Broadcasting Network article about Cooper’s opposition to North Carolina Senate Bill 406. Known as the "Choose Your School, Choose Your Future" Act, the bill would expand the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program to enable more families to qualify for vouchers to send their children to private schools.

Cooper, a Democrat, has opposed vouchers in the past. But he likely isn't the reason this bill stalled in the legislature. The Republican-led legislature hadn't advanced it to Cooper’s desk when the ad initially aired. The House passed a similar version in May. But the Senate’s version never came up for a floor vote. 

Republican legislators ultimately incorporated the proposal in the state budget, which was still being debated this week. If approved, as lawmakers expect, only then would Cooper have the opportunity to block it through a veto. 

The ad also compares Cooper to the late Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who opposed Black children attending the same public schools as white children. The Opportunity Scholarship program doesn’t deal with race at all. 

Cooper says he opposes the school voucher expansion because it diverts more public funds to private schools, which he doesn’t believe to be inherently "high quality," as the ad suggests. An analysis from the state’s Office of State Budget and Management found that the proposed voucher expansion could reduce public school funding by more than $200 million.

Besides overstating what Cooper has done to oppose the bill, the ad also misstates what effects it would have on low-income families, who already qualify for vouchers even if the bill — or the budget — go nowhere.

Funds for parents

North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship program went into effect in 2014. It gives families who meet certain income criteria — generally lower than the state’s median household income — special access to its funds to pay for private school.

Unleash Prosperity Now claimed that if Senate Bill 406’s proposals aren’t enacted, funds would be denied to "low-income parents." That’s misleading. 

S.B. 406 would increase the maximum award for lower-income students by 11.1% to $7,213 per student. But low-income families — and some middle income families — would still have access to Opportunity Scholarships if the bill dies because of the way the existing program is structured.

The GOP proposal would be to lift the program’s existing income caps and open eligibility to students already attending private schools. Vouchers would be awarded to families on a sliding scale, with low-income families still receiving the largest vouchers. 

Representatives of the Committee to Unleash Prosperity didn’t respond to questions about the ad. But group co-founder Stephen Moore told Fox News that Democrats should want more students to go where they believe they’ll get the best education. Moore accused Democrats of opposing school choice programs to satisfy teachers’ unions.

"Parents deserve to be in charge of their children’s education, not politicians and especially not unelected union bosses," Moore said in a statement to Fox News.

Cooper’s opposition

The ad claims Cooper is blocking the program’s expansion. Legislatively speaking, that isn’t true. The proposal hasn’t made it to his desk for his signature or veto, nor has a similar version in the House. Even if he did veto it, Republican backers of the bill carry veto-proof supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature.

In May, after legislators introduced proposals to expand the program, Cooper made an appeal to the voting public. He declared a "State of Emergency for Public Education" — an unofficial, symbolic gesture meant to raise awareness of the proposed Opportunity Scholarship expansion and other GOP-backed education bills. He urged residents to contact their legislators to speak out against the proposals.

Legislative leaders ultimately folded the proposed Opportunity Scholarship expansion into the state budget, which they released Wednesday after months of negotiating.

It’s unclear what Cooper, who has called for Opportunity Vouchers to be phased out, will do with the budget. Since taking office in 2017, he has vetoed some budgets and signed others — including budgets in 2021 and 2022 that provided funding for the Opportunity Scholarship program. Cooper argued that, on balance, the good parts of those budgets outweighed the bad.

This year, the budget is tied to an expansion of Medicaid benefits that Cooper has sought for years. Despite his objections to many Republican ideas, it’s possible he would sign their proposed budget or let it become law without his signature.

Besides the ad’s claims about the bill being blocked, Cooper spokesperson Jordan Monaghan took issue with the ad’s suggestion that private schools are inherently high-quality. "This claim is not just an insult, it is factually wrong since public schools face rigorous requirements for testing, licensure and educational outcomes, while private schools are not measured in any similar way," Monaghan said.

Research is mixed on the impact of private school vouchers on student achievement, WRAL has reported. Studies show performance declines in some states among students who transferred to private schools, while studies in other areas showed higher graduation rates among voucher recipients. In North Carolina, no testing data exists to compare outcomes.

Our ruling

An ad from Unleash Prosperity Now claimed that Cooper "is blocking a pioneering school choice bill that would give thousands of low-income parents the funds to allow their kids to get a high-quality education." The ad alluded to S.B. 406, a measure that would expand the state’s voucher program.

Although Cooper spoke out against the bill — and urged residents to oppose it — he hasn’t taken any legislative action to block it because the bill never reached his desk. The bill’s proposals are now part of legislators’ state budget plan which, at the time this fact check was published, hadn’t reached Cooper’s desk either.

The proposal would benefit lower-income families, but its demise wouldn’t deprive them of the voucher access they already have. It would lift the program’s existing income caps and open eligibility to students already attending private schools.  

The ad’s statement contains elements of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate it Mostly False.

Our Sources

Unleash Prosperity Now video ad, "Education Fairness for All in North Carolina," posted to YouTube Aug. 13, 2023.

Email exchange with Jordan Monaghan, spokesperson for North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper.

Email exchange with Mary Shuping, Director of Governmental and External Affairs for the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority.

Christian Broadcasting Network, "NC Governor Declares 'State of Emergency' in Attempt to Block School Choice for Families," May 23, 2023.

Fox News, "Watchdog group targets Democrat opposition to school choice as akin to segregation: 'George Wallace Democrats,'" July 6, 2023.

North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship Household Income Eligibility Guidelines 2023-2024.

WRAL, "More NC families would qualify for private school vouchers under massive program in state budget," Sept. 20, 2023; "Cooper says GOP teacher pay, voucher plans a public education 'disaster,'" May 22, 2023; "NC House passes bill to expand private school vouchers by $400 million, eligibility to all family incomes," May 17, 2023; "Analysis: Expanded private school voucher program would cut public school funding by more than $200 million," May 12, 2023; "GOP lawmakers want to pay for students' private education. How we got here, what's new and why they face resistance," April 28, 2023; "NC Senate committee backs expansion of private school vouchers," April 26, 2023; "NC Republicans pitch $1.3 billion boost for private school vouchers," March 29, 2023; "GOP lawmakers hope bigger grants, increased eligibility will attract more families to NC school voucher program," April 30, 2021; "Make $70,000 a year? Your kid could get a voucher under this bill," May 8, 2019.

Press releases by North Carolina Senate Leader Phil Berger, "Lawmakers Complete Budget, Prioritize State’s Most Pressing Needs," Sept. 20, 2023; "School Choice Expansion Bill Filed in NC Senate, Opens Opportunity Scholarships to All Families," March 29, 2023.

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Attack ad exaggerates effects of school choice bill, Cooper's opposition

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