The largest association of educators in the state is calling for a boycott of all businesses owned by Art Pope, a North Carolina business man and political insider who has contributed millions of dollars to conservative groups pressing for the elimination of caps on charter school funding. The decision to call for the boycott was made last week at the annual convention of the North Carolina Association of Educators.
Art Pope is the president of Variety Wholesalers, Inc., and a director of the conservative political advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity. Pope is also a major supporter of the Civitas Institute, and he holds a seat on the boards of directors for the John Locke Foundation, the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association. Variety Wholesalers is the parent group to a number of popular stores in the state such as Roses, Maxway, Value Mart, Super 10 and Super Dollar (though not Dollar General), among others owned by Variety Wholesalers Inc.
On Tuesday, Brian Lewis, the government liaison for the NCAE, confirmed the association's plans to call for a boycott. Nearly 1,200 delegates from every part of the state participated in the annual convention in Raleigh where the boycott was voted on. Lewis said a formal announcement of the boycott is will be made on Thursday.
Americans for Prosperity is among the most forceful proponents of Senate Bill 8, which would lift the cap on charter schools and entitle them to more public school funding. Supporters of the bill say it will inject a level of competition into public education that will improve it in the long run. Detractors say it could cripple a public education system that is already embattled in the state.
As it is currently written, S.B. 8 would require that local school systems hand over a portion of their funding to charter schools in their district, but the charter schools receiving the funds would not be required to provide the services for which the funds were originally allocated to the districts, such as nutrition programs and transportation. Lewis noted that the bill, which is currently being reworked in the House, has been softened slightly from earlier versions that could have even opened local P.T.O. funds, athletic game receipts and even endowments to charter schools.
Senator Jim Davis (R-Franklin) says that some changes to the original bill have been necessary, such as those to protect non-governmental funds and address other legitimate complaints which educators have. At the same time, Davis remains a strong supporter of removing the cap on charter schools.
“The bottom line is we're trying to expand the educational opportunities for students and for parents in North Carolina, and we feel like lifting the cap on charter schools would go a long way towards that,” Davis said. “I think that we need to introduce competition into our educational system.”
But according to Lewis and the NCAE, rather than strengthen education in the state, such competition could ultimately destroy public schooling. Pope has reportedly said in speeches that he would be happy if all traditional public schools were replaced with charter schools, a statement which should raise alarm bells, says Lewis.
“The NCAE is drawing the line in the sand. We’ve identified who the leaders are in breaking apart public education as we know it in this state and remaking it in their image.” — John deVille, vice president of the Macon County chapter of the NCAE.
“The most egregious thing about Mr. Pope's activities, ... from our member's standpoint, is that he makes his millions off of poor people,” Lewis said, explaining the reason Pope has been singled out. “He makes his millions off of African Americans and other disenfranchised groups, and then takes this money and uses it to undermine the poor by gutting the public schools and creating a system of vouchers that help the affluent.”
“Taken to it's natural conclusion, this would mean there would be no bus services, no nutrition programs,” says Lewis of the Pope dream of a privatized education system. “Children would be segregated by race or economic status. Teachers would lose their due-process rights and their professional salaries would be cut along with healthcare and other benefits.”
Davis disagrees and says statistics prove otherwise. According to Davis, of the 100 charter schools in the state, twelve of them have 99 percent-plus minority populations, which he believes demonstrates that charter schools would not disadvantage certain groups. “This is just an empty argument to try to thwart the effort of bringing competition into our school system,” says Davis.
Lewis and Davis (and maybe Pope) do agree on one thing. Public education in North Carolina is in trouble. But the annual NCAE Fund Schools First report points to other reasons for the situation. North Carolina is ranked 46th in the nation in terms of per-pupil expenditures and 45th in the nation in terms of average teacher salaries. Giving charter schools the right to skim off even more funding from local education agencies will only exacerbate the problem, say opponents of S.B. 8.
“The NCAE is drawing the line in the sand,” said John deVille, vice president of the Macon County chapter of the NCAE. “We’ve identified who the leaders are in breaking apart public education as we know it in this state and remaking it in their image.”
Mr. deVille added that while the boycott may have limited economic impact on Pope's businesses, the NCAE is hopeful that the campaign will raise awareness about what exactly is at stake in this battle for public education in North Carolina.