North Carolina Governor Declares ‘State of Emergency’ Over Education Debate

Is it an emergency when you’re losing an argument? North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper thinks it is; he declared “a state of emergency for public education” because state lawmakers propose what he calls “extreme legislation” regarding education choice, funding, and curriculum. While Cooper claims no extraordinary powers, his performative declaration underlines warnings by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, published just days earlier, that government officials have become entirely too accustomed to issuing emergency decrees to bypass normal debate and to suppress dissent, and that civil liberties have suffered as a result.

It’s an Emergency When Opponents Disagree

“It’s time to declare a State of Emergency for public education in North Carolina,” Cooper, a Democrat, announced May 22. “There’s no Executive Order like with a hurricane or the pandemic, but it’s no less important. It’s clear that the Republican legislature is aiming to choke the life out of public education.”

Specifically, Cooper objected to the legislature’s plan to expand a “private school voucher scheme” by which he means the state’s Opportunity Scholarships. Currently limited to low-income students, a bill passed by the House and pending in the Senate would expand criteria for participation.

“The ‘Choose Your School, Choose Your Future Act’ eliminates income eligibility limits for the Opportunity Scholarship program,” The News & Observer noted last week. “Instead, vouchers would be awarded based on a sliding scale with lower-income families getting the most money.”

That doesn’t sound like much of an emergency, but neither do Cooper’s disagreements with lawmakers over tax cuts and teacher pay. And while his dispute with Republicans over “curriculum decisions on what students learn” is yet another serious example of the country’s political fracture, it’s also one that could be resolved by giving families vouchers to pay for schools that suit their needs and preferences. That is, one element of the governor’s co-called “emergency” would actually be fixed by what seems to be his main “emergency” concern.

It’s an Emergency When the Public Disagrees

It’s worth noting that Cooper declared a state of emergency not just because he’s losing an argument with lawmakers, but also because he’s losing an argument with the people of North Carolina. School choice is popular among the public that elected the governor to office.

“Over two-thirds of likely North Carolina voters support the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, which grants scholarships to low-to-moderate-income students to attend a school of their choice,” the John Locke Foundation’s Civitas Poll found in January of this year. “An even greater share of North Carolinians (68.8%) support Education Savings Accounts, which provide families with funds to pay for educational expenses, such as tuition, tutoring, and instructional materials. Charter schools, which have become a popular education option for families, received 68.7% support among those surveyed.”

The same poll found 66.1 percent of respondents dissatisfied “with the quality of education students receive in kindergarten through grade twelve in the U.S. today.”

In polling conducted in North Carolina by Morning Consult, EdChoice reports similarly low satisfaction with K-12 education. Pollsters also reported that 61 percent of all adults and 73 percent of school parents support school vouchers. Sixty-nine percent of adults and 80 percent of school parents favor education savings accounts. Sixty-eight percent of all adults and 78 percent of school parents support charters schools.

It’s an Emergency When People Want the Freedom Politicians Have

You know who else favors school choice? Gov. Roy Cooper himself.

“The Coopers have three daughters, Hilary, Claire, and Natalie, a 2011 Saint Mary’s graduate,” the Raleigh private school boasted in 2017. The announcement also noted that the state’s first lady, Kristin Cooper, would serve as commencement speaker at the school’s graduation ceremony that year.

Cooper’s support of “choice for me but not for me” has understandably become an issue in North Carolina’s ongoing policy debate. It’s hard to see how extending comparable options for picking schools and lesson plans to other families constitute a state of emergency—unless declaring an “emergency” has become a bad habit for politicians who resent disagreement, as Justice Neil Gorsuch recently warned.

A Pandemic of Emergency Decrees

“Since March 2020, we may have experienced the greatest intrusions on civil liberties in the peacetime history of this country. Executive officials across the country issued emergency decrees on a breathtaking scale,” Gorsuch wrote in a statement published May 18. “While executive officials issued new emergency decrees at a furious pace, state legislatures and Congress—the bodies normally responsible for adopting our laws—too often fell silent.”

Gorsuch’s statement was attached to the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Arizona v. Mayorkas, addressing Title 42 public health powers invoked to raise barriers to immigrants during the COVID-19 pandemic. But he made clear that he is broadly concerned with the overall proliferation of emergency decrees to bypass debate, exercise extraordinary power, and suppress dissent.

“Make no mistake—decisive executive action is sometimes necessary and appropriate. But if emergency decrees promise to solve some problems, they threaten to generate others. And rule by indefinite emergency edict risks leaving all of us with a shell of a democracy and civil liberties just as hollow,” he concluded.

Cooper invoked no special powers with his performative “state of emergency.” But he very clearly wants to tap into a deference to authority that he hopes people have acquired through several years of executive orders intruding far into people’s lives.

“These ideas spell disaster that requires emergency action,” he insisted in his declaration.

No, they don’t. These ideas, and disagreements over them, constitute perfectly normal policy arguments that Cooper happens to be losing to his political opponents and to the public at large. In a normal, functioning, democratic political system, you win some and you lose some. Losing is unpleasant; it may be bad if you lose to proponents of lousy policy. But that’s not an emergency. Cooper wants to end-run healthy debate by invoking a sense of crisis.

Of course, government officials don’t like disagreement. That’s not news. But debate is healthy and it’s a bad idea to let politicians try to marginalize dissent with authoritarian stunts.

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