Democratic candidates for a Charlotte-area congressional seat are sparring over an issue key for public school advocates: The use of public money for private education.
The debate has heated up a 12th District primary that’s seen few policy differences among six announced candidates in the May 6 vote.
Their dispute comes as North Carolina’s new voucher program is under fire in state court.
On Friday a Wake County Superior Court judge blocked the program enacted last year by state lawmakers. Opportunity Scholarships would give low-income parents taxpayer money to send their children to private or religious schools.
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Advocates say more than 4,300 students applied for the program since the application period opened this month. About 2,400 would get scholarships of up to $4,200 per year.
At least six Democrats are running for the seat vacated last month by Democratic Rep. Mel Watt in the district that runs from Charlotte to Greensboro. Most oppose vouchers.
But one Democrat – state Rep. Marcus Brandon of High Point – co-sponsored voucher legislation.
State Sen. Malcolm Graham of Charlotte insists he opposes vouchers, though he’s given critics reasons to suggest otherwise.
Negotiating a bill
The N.C. Association of Educators, the state’s largest teachers group, has said the voucher issue was key in its endorsement of longtime state Rep. Alma Adams of Greensboro.
NCAE vice president Mark Jewell says Adams has a 22-year record as a strong advocate of public education who opposes diverting public funds for private schools.
Brandon defends his support of voucher legislation. “To me it’s a justice issue,” he says. “If people in a certain community, because of their income and zip code, can have a quality education, then the people in my community deserve the same access and same opportunity.”
As a sponsor, he says he was able to shape the measure and target it to students from low-income families.
“The bill would have been disastrous if we had people like Rep. Adams who don’t go to the table and negotiate things and prefer to be a cheerleader instead of a legislator,” Brandon says. “This policy was going to pass regardless. I’m proud of this bill.”
Adams says she will “negotiate whenever I can.”
“But I will never compromise my integrity or our children’s future,” she says.
Brandon and Adams agree about one thing: Both argue that Graham supported voucher legislation.
Last year Graham spoke at a news conference organized by voucher supporters. He has taken campaign contributions from Partners for Educational Freedom, a group that supports vouchers and charter schools, and last year hosted a dinner for the group’s president. Among the guests were Brandon and other lawmakers.
In 2011 he sponsored a bill to study the use of “tax benefits” for private education. The bill never left committee.
Graham says as a member of the Senate education committee, he’s always open to ideas on improving education and has listened to all sides. But, he says, he has stopped short of supporting vouchers.
“As a legislator I have to be given the room to explore and research,” he says. “When it came down to it, I could not support it.…That’s part of my doing due diligence.”
A video of last year’s legislative news conference on the voucher bill shows Graham touting education alternatives without expressly endorsing the legislation.
“How we deliver public education in America has to change,” he said then. “I welcome this bill to the Senate. I want to massage it a little bit … Sometimes doing what is right is not popular, but I’m here to be a leader. … There’s no question that it is right to do what is in the best interests of poor kids.”
Like Adams and Brandon, Graham voted against the voucher provision that had become was part of the Republican legislative budget.
Candidates oppose vouchers
Other Democratic candidates say they oppose vouchers.
“Public money should not go to fund unaccountable, inaccessible private schools,” says George Battle III, an attorney for Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board. Battle, alone among the candidates, also opposes the current system of charter schools, saying they drain money from traditional schools.
James Mitchell, a former Charlotte City Council member, says “all public money should go to public schools.”
And Charlotte attorney Curtis Osborne says, “All Democrats should pledge not to support voucher systems.”