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Billionaires, public education and vouchers

Billionaires, public education and vouchers

Despite stiff opposition, the N.C. Senate voted this month to double the funding for Opportunity Scholarships to boost enrollment in privately run K-12 schools; more than $200,000,000 is earmarked for kids in high-income families. 

Why would Republican leaders do this now when polls show voters oppose tax subsidies for the rich? And when public schools urgently need more funds — North Carolina ranks 48th in per-pupil spending

The answer is campaign money.

Maybe you’ve heard about Donald Trump telling Big Oil execs that they should give his campaign $1 billion so he can implement their vision of energy policy. In a similar way, GOP leaders are telling billionaire donors who want to privatize public education that the General Assembly will adopt their agenda and take radical steps to ensure that, as one senator said, “North Carolina is at the forefront of school choice and education freedom.”  

It’s not about what’s good for children or society. It’s about what brings in the millions to win elections and hold power. 

Truth be told, public education has long been warped by the corrupting influence of big money. Generations of North Carolinians suffered because employers profited from an undereducated workforce. Politicians gave pro-education speeches but deliberately underfunded schools — worse in Black communities — effectively pushing students out of classrooms into low-paying jobs. 

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The mills and tenant farms are largely gone, and there’s now broad support to make real the 1997 N.C. Supreme Court Leandro ruling that our state constitution “guarantee[s] every child of this state the opportunity to receive a sound basic education.” 

But an elitist, racist bias against robust public institutions, coupled with a political system tilted to wealthy donors, keeps slowing progress and distorts how legislators address the Leandro mandate. 

For example, from 2010 to 2016, an Oregon millionaire named John Bryan contributed $700,000 to dozens of N.C. politicians to gain support for his “school reform” agenda. In 2016, he finally won legislative approval for an “innovative” program to convert low-performing public schools into charter schools, which his corporation would manage for a fee. 

The program became a boondoggle, with only one school converted and no academic progress achieved. Bryan said his goal was to “inculcate my belief in the libertarian, free market, early American Founder’s principles” into schools. He died in 2020.

Unfortunately, a host of Bryan-like millionaires are now handing out big checks to encourage politicians to privatize rather than strengthen public education. At the top of the list is Jeffrey Yass, a Pennsylvania billionaire with a passion for gambling and subsidized private schools.  

In October 2022, Yass gave an eye-popping $1 million to a committee controlled by N.C. Republican legislative leaders. The next year, the General Assembly legalized sports gambling and vastly expanded Opportunity Scholarships by deleting the income cap for receiving private school vouchers. 

Yass is now ramping up his contributions; he’s the nation’s biggest donor to 2024 federal campaigns. He’s teaming up with other donors to bankroll groups and politicians who demonize diversity, promote censorships and attack public schools. He just donated $6 million to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott for his voucher plan, plus $3.5 million to elect pro-plan legislators. A Virginia PAC backing GOP legislators got $2 million.

Republican leaders in North Carolina also want large donations from Yass and his ilk — which inspires more radical steps, like the one this month to award vouchers worth millions to wealthy families. 

Long range, these steps create a two-tier system: subsidized, costly private schools with little government oversight, geared to middle- and upper-class kids, and under-resourced public schools for the low income and poor who are disproportionately people of color. This is the opposite of the civic commitment to mutual uplift embedded in the Leandro decision. 

Republicans will likely get their millions in campaign money from Jeff Yass et al, but at a steep price for the people of North Carolina. 

(Bob Hall is a voting-rights organizer and former executive director of Democracy NC. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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