More than 850 parents, children, community leaders, and politicians from across North Carolina congregated in Charlotte just before Election Day when a school choice advocacy group held a rally to allow gubernatorial candidates to speak with citizens and listen to voters’ opinions on the issue.
The rally, organized by Parents for Educational Freedom (PEF), an advocacy group based in Raleigh, drew a predominantly black audience on October 28.
“I will say this: I have not attended a better event in the school choice movement than the one in North Carolina,” said Andrew Campanella, director of communications for the Alliance for School Choice, a national advocacy group based in Washington, DC.
“Parents for Educational Freedom did an absolutely phenomenal job of bringing together the most diverse and compelling coalition of parents, legislators, children, clergy, and politicians,” Campanella continued. “It was filled to the brim with people. They had children speaking with stories that were really, really compelling. They had parents talking about the need and their desire to send their children to better schools.”
PEF planned the event in less than three months, noted Darrell Allison, president of the group. He said the issue of school choice has become politicized partly because the National Education Association has spent millions of dollars campaigning against it in North Carolina.
“When you have that kind of message saturating the airwaves, it does something,” Allison said. “That’s one of the reasons why we wanted to have this forum. We got too much into this crossfire. It got too political. It should not be a private versus public education battle.”
Though PEF invited both Republican gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory and Democrat Beverly Perdue, only McCrory attended. Perdue won the election.
“We thought, let’s have a discussion as opposed to a war of words,” Allison said. “We really want to know who our leader is and where our leader stands so we can make an educated decision.”
Allison said education in North Carolina is not often discussed fully. Usually, the 250,000 students educated outside of public schools are neglected because the discussion centers only on public schools.
Community members were allowed to ask questions or recount their stories about school choice. Among the topics discussed by those attending the forum were North Carolina’s charter school cap, which limits the number of charter schools to 100 statewide, and proposals to enable working middle-income or poor families to send their children to private schools through programs such as vouchers or tax credit scholarships.
The group also talked about tax treatment of homeschool parents. Currently, North Carolina homeschool parents must pay all educational expenses out of their own pockets, in addition to paying property taxes that support public schools, despite the fact that most survive on only one parent’s income. In many cases, the parent who stays home to teach forgoes outside employment in order to do so.
Allison said the mostly Democrat audience gave more than one standing ovation to McCrory.
“Clearly, this is one example of where the issues mean more than politics or any other thing,” Allison said. “Everyone was swept away with President [Barack] Obama’s election and him being successful, but at the same time, you’re starting to see a base of leadership of nontraditional supporters who are bucking the trend and really engaging on policy and issues that mean most to the families and the children. It was very powerful.”
Campanella said the rally would likely give momentum to school choice advocates despite a legislative environment hostile to such reforms. He said the grassroots network the rally helped promote will help school choice advocates press their agenda in the state.
Jillian Melchior ([email protected]) writes from Michigan.