Stam’s crusade

April 19, 2013 

Paul “Skip” Stam is a smart, conservative legislator who often puts up one-man battles against entrenched Democrats in the General Assembly. The Apex Republican was in fact endorsed more than once on the editorial pages of The News & Observer because of his outspoken criticism of Democrats whom he believed were abusing their power.

Unfortunately, Stam the watchdog and dissenter was more effective as a state House member than is Stam the speaker pro tem with a Republican majority laying waste to social programs, Medicaid and unemployment insurance. And even more unfortunately, the now-powerful lawmaker has a bill that may be about to do damage to public education in a way that will be difficult to repair.

The cause is vouchers, which basically amount to taxpayer-funded scholarships to help people send their children to private schools. The voucher movement is carried on in the name of “choice” or as a good-hearted way to help disadvantaged people who believe their kids aren’t getting a good education in public schools. Generally, vouchers are designated for people below certain income levels or, in some cases, for those parents with kids who have special needs.

Foot in the door

Such parents would get vouchers of up to $4,200 a year to pay private school tuition if their kids left public schools.

But many public school officials and parents rightly are suspicious. While vouchers may initially be designated for lower-income families or kids with needs, once the movement gets a foothold, it’s easy enough for lawmakers to offer those taxpayer dollars to a broader group of recipients. And a vouchers program opens the possibility of constitutional questions about public dollars going to schools with religious affiliations.

Meanwhile, that money that goes for vouchers can come right out of public education, draining dollars that in North Carolina are hardly plentiful.

Timing suspicious

Stam’s push, which he discussed with the conservative Carolina Journal, also is suspicious coming at a time when Republican leaders in the General Assembly have made public school teachers a target of criticism. Some teachers, and particularly some active with the N.C. Association of Educators, have been critical of Republican cuts to public education.

Stam may succeed, given the majorities that Republicans hold in the General Assembly, but they’d better be aware that the vast majority of parents in North Carolina have their school-age children in public schools – and most are satisfied with those schools. There’s a lesson about that in Wake County, where Republicans played on the discontent of some parents – and on the apathy of Democrats – to win a school board majority in 2009. Two years later, voters repudiated their radical changes.

Republicans on the national and state level continue to see, if their eyes are open, polls and surveys showing that America is becoming more diverse and more enlightened on social issues, and remains supportive of public education.

The old and weary ideology of 20 years ago, or maybe that should be 50 years ago, isn’t selling the way it used to, even if it may be popular with Republican legislators on Jones Street.

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