In North Carolina, a new breed of black politician emerges

There’s something exciting happening in North Carolina: Young, liberal African-American politicians are breaking away from teachers’ unions to support school choice.

“If you are able to look at a poor parent in the face, and you know that they don’t have the same opportunities as someone that lives across town, and say, ‘Yes, ma’am, I know that that school isn’t working for your child, but you live in that zip code and you must stay there’ — if you’re prepared to call that Democratic or progressive ideals, I’d like to challenge you on that,” a North Carolina legislator said recently while speaking in favor of a school voucher bill.

The speaker continued, “I will stand up here and fight for my constituents to have equal access and equal opportunity to choose their schools.”

To say the scene was stunning would be an understatement.

A Democratic member of the North Carolina General Assembly had just stared down the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) — the education establishment and the core of the Democratic Party.

The speaker was State Representative Marcus Brandon (D-High Point), and he was explaining his support for House Bill 944 — the Opportunity Scholarship Act — a bill that would create North Carolina’s first school voucher program. Brandon is not a stereotypical voucher advocate. To begin with, he’s an African-American Democrat from an urban district. He was the national finance director for Dennis Kucinich’s 2008 presidential bid. Now he is a sophomore state legislator and vice-chair of the State House Education Committee.

But Brandon is a new type of politician: a black Democrat who supports school choice programs.

In North Carolina, as in most states, teachers’ unions largely fund Democratic campaigns. It is exceptionally rare for a North Carolina Democrat to cross the NCAE’s agenda. But Brandon did just that. In fact, he had drawn the ire of the NCAE before — in the previous legislative session, when he spoke out in favor of eliminating a cap on charter schools and creating a tax credit for parents to send their handicapped or special-needs children to private schools. In response, the NCAE not only cut him off, but tried to defeat him in a primary election. Fortunately, his voters, in urban Guilford County, believe that educational choice translates to economic opportunity.

Brandon isn’t alone in his heterodoxy. At least three black legislators are working with North Carolina’s new conservative government to bring school choice to the state’s inner cities. This year, legislators hope to create a statewide means-tested voucher program and expand on the special-needs tax credit by converting it into a scholarship grant program.

Historically, there has been little support — and quite a bit of opposition — to school choice in the black community, where public education has long been seen as the key to economic opportunity.

But today, many liberal blacks are finding that black children are being left behind by the public education system. North Carolina’s African-American students are passing end-of-grade tests at a rate 18.1 percent below that of their non-black peers. And the achievement gap between the state’s black and non-black students is actually increasingly, even though per-pupil education funding in North Carolina has increased by 34 percent since 2001.