“We support equal opportunity, not equal outcomes,” North Carolina Republicans like to say. What they really mean is that they support school vouchers and charter schools, not a social safety net. It’s that simple. But rather than dismiss their protestations as empty rhetoric, it’s worth engaging with what they claim is their core governing philosophy. To be blunt, it’s something close to a fraud.

In one of his many blistering responses to Governor Cooper’s State of the State addresses, Senate Republican leader Phil Berger said “we [Republicans] came into power in 2010 with a simple philosophy, providing equal opportunity for success to everyone willing to work for it.” He elaborated that this meant any North Carolinian–presumably in this case referring to young people–should be given an equal start in life regardless of “zip code” or “family income.” Here Berger’s proclamations turn to hot gas. Since taking over state government a decade ago, Republicans have sought to undermine the tools of opportunity available to those born into poverty, whether in the inner city or the most isolated country hollow.

Literally no proposition is better established within the field of education research than that child poverty handicaps educational outcomes. Teachers and school employees can make the most heroic efforts to counteract their pupils’ inherited disadvantages–and many, many of them do–but a starting point of poverty places young Americans in an extremely deep hole that most do not manage to transcend no matter how they live their lives. It begins at birth: poor infants have lower birth rates than their wealthy, well, counterparts. Students raised in poverty enter school wracked with anxiety, insecurity, cognitive overload, and family instability. Claiming to provide equal opportunity by shifting poor students out of public schools while neglecting the fundamental issue of poverty is a grand exercise in missing the point.

Alas, North Carolina Republicans have done worse than neglect child poverty. They have instead worked vigorously to entrench it. Some years ago, state Senator Ralph Hise–who represents a district in which child poverty comes in at above 25% in every relevant county–passed a bill to cut over 30,000 children off of food assistance. Food insecurity is a formidable obstacle to educational achievement, as should be obvious. Republicans have also eliminated the Earned Income Tax Credit–a lifeline to working parents–curtailed support for childcare, and even, cruelly, eliminated funding for in-school dental checkups. Under Republican policies, poor people have gotten poorer, hungrier, and less healthy. They’ve taken the starting gate and moved it about a mile backward for the poorest of the poor.

Even regarding in-school factors, Republicans have made things worse. It came as something of a relief that the new, 2011 majorities did not eliminate SmartStart and More at Four, the state’s award-winning preschool programs, outright. They just contented themselves with shrinking the programs and allowing them to languish for years. Research has proven that More at Four in particular benefits poor kids tremendously and throughout their lives. At the K-12 level, Republicans’ “school choice” ideology has just allowed charters and vouchers to “skim” the best students and most engaged parents out of traditional public schools, leaving the most disadvantaged kids in diminished schools. Not to mention that a veritable bookshelf of research proves that school vouchers do not work at all.

Republicans took a direct shot at equal opportunity by cutting financial aid for poor college students. Their puppets on the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, no strangers to racism, further curtailed assistance to the few poor students who enroll at our flagship. From the earliest days of life to the gateways to campus, Republicans have sought, demonstrably, not to reify an ideology of opportunity but to trap our poorest citizens, further, in a position of subjugation and hopelessness. Southern conservatives have fought for this hierarchy for generations. Le plus ca change, le plus c’est la meme chose.


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