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Fact Check: Did Gov. Roy Cooper block school choice bill?

It’s time for a fact-check of North Carolina politics. And this week we are looking at an ad attacking Gov. Roy Cooper.

In the ad, the narrator says: “Alabama Gov. George Wallace blocked the school doors to keep Black children from attending good schools. Now 60 years later, 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.”

To break that down, we turn now to Paul Specht of WRAL.

Marshall Terry: So first, Paul, who was behind this ad, and what is this school choice bill that the ad refers to?

Gov. Roy Cooper
Gov. Roy Cooper
Gov. Roy Cooper.

Paul Specht: This ad was launched by a conservative group known as Unleash Prosperity Now. They're a national group, and they've launched this campaign to go after Democratic governors who opposed what they refer to as school choice. They're going after Roy Cooper because he opposes a bill called Senate Bill 406, and it would expand the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program.

Now this program, as of earlier this year, would give private school vouchers to some families to send their children to private schools. Now the bill would lift the income eligibility requirements completely so that there's no income cap, meaning anyone in any tax bracket, even rich families, could access at least some grant money to help send their kid to private school.

Terry: So probably the most attention-grabbing thing about this ad is the comparison to a former Alabama governor, George Wallace, who was infamous for the line “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.” Is there any basis in the school choice bill and Cooper's opposition to it for any sort of comparison between the two governors?

Specht: No, the comparison is really off-base. Wallace opposed Black children attending public schools with white children — and the Opportunity Scholarship program has nothing to do with race whatsoever. The program was launched in 2014. It has always catered to lower-income families. It's always been about income, and Cooper has opposed it for years — not because it has anything to do with race. Again, the program has nothing to do with race. But because it takes taxpayer money and gives it to families who want to send their kids to private schools — and he points out, we have very few mechanisms in state government to hold private schools accountable, they don't have as much oversight as public schools. So his opposition is about where the money is going, and the lack of accountability. It has nothing to do with race.

Terry: Now the ad describes private schools as being high quality and suggests student voucher programs, which have sprung up across the country in recent years are good for student achievement. But what does the research say about it?

Specht: Well, it's mixed. And part of the problem is we don't have comprehensive testing data to compare outcomes of kids who go from public school to private school and vice versa. It's all situational. You know, there may be some families who leave a low-graded public school and go to a private school that has better instruction.  But it could also be true that someone leaves a well-graded public school and goes to a private school that maybe isn't so hot and has just a curriculum that's not as strenuous as the local public school.

The Cooper administration took issue with the suggestion that it's inherently better to go to a private school. And, certainly, just as outside observers as fact-checkers, we agree that there's no way to know if every kid is leaving for a better school.

Terry: So how did you rate the claim against Gov. Roy Cooper made in this ad?

Specht: We rated it mostly false. And what that means is there's an element of truth to this ad, but it ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. The element of truth here is that Cooper attempted to block this Opportunity Scholarship expansion from becoming law. His attempt was just a public address earlier this year, in May when he put out a video (and) he declared an unofficial state of emergency for public education and encouraged North Carolinians to call your legislator, tell them you do not like this program, tell them to keep public funds in public schools. That was his effort to block it.

The (state) legislature has a Republican supermajority. As long as they can get everyone in their party to agree they can almost pass anything they want, and ultimately that's what they did. This Opportunity Scholarship expansion was put in the budget that was passed last week. And Cooper announced that he was going to let it become law without his signature. So, ultimately, he didn't block this program at all, which is why we ended up at a mostly false.

Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.