Tricia Cotham’s defection to the Republican Party wasn’t about her relationships with fellow lawmakers; it was about the influence of big money and the charter school industry.
By Jeff Bryant
A July 30, 2023, headline in the New York Times promised to give readers an “inside” story about why North Carolina lawmaker Tricia Cotham changed her political allegiance from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party in April and handed conservatives a veto-proof majority in the state House. But the ensuing story shed little new light on what motivated her decision to flip and overlooked how her deep dive into the right-wing networks promoting charter schools was likely instrumental in steering her change in political leanings.
For sure, Times journalists Kate Kelly and David Perlmutt are correct in reporting Cotham’s actions as having profound impacts in a purple state, but they erred in adopting an unlikely storyline about who and what lured her to jump.
As I’ve previously reported, Cotham’s own explanation for her party switch strains credibility. And just because Republican officials encouraged her to run in 2022—the Times article’s supposed big reveal—doesn’t mean they, or the Democrats with whom she had purportedly grown disenchanted, were the only, or most important, actors who mattered in her decision.
Yet Kelly and Perlmutt chose to amplify that narrative rather than delve more deeply into Cotham’s legislative record and the business associates she cultivated in the years she was out of office, from 2016 to 2022.
As I reported, Cotham’s split from the Democratic Party first became evident toward the end of her legislative tenure from 2007 to 2016. At the end of that period, Cotham had already decided to leave the North Carolina House to seek office in Congress. But she was soundly drubbed in the Democratic primary contest and returned to Raleigh, perhaps facing joblessness.
It was at that time that Cotham, who had voted strictly the Democratic Party line on legislation related to charter schools, chose to buck her party’s majority to join with just four other Democrats to vote for the creation of the Achievement School District (ASD). The ASD, whose name was eventually changed to Innovative School District (ISD), was created to take charge of low-performing schools and hand them over to charter school management companies.
But Kelly and Perlmutt either didn’t look back that far into Cotham’s legislative record or didn’t believe that vote was important. “In office, Ms. Cotham had criticized charter schools, but now her firm supported private investments in the public school system and charter schools,” was their open-and-shut assessment.
Nor did they bother to note to whom that vote would have mattered the most—Oregon billionaire John Bryan, who not only bankrolled the lobbying effort to enact the ASD/ISD but also founded the Challenge Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for charter schools, operates a firm that builds charter schools, and started a charter school management company called TeamCFA.
Bryan has also been described as “a national figure in libertarian circles when it comes to charter schools” and a donor who “contributes heavily and regularly to conservative causes.”
Cotham’s vote for the ISD preceded a series of career opportunities for her, which the Times article mostly ignored.
The first, beginning in 2017, was a stint at McGuireWoods Consulting, a highly influential lobbying firm whose clients include a long list of organizations closely associated with the charter school industry and right-wing school choice advocacy, including at least one organization funded by the Challenge Foundation. McGuireWoods was also the lobbying firm pushing the bill to create the ISD.
The second in Cotham’s series of business opportunities, which Kelly and Perlmutt did report on, came in 2019 when she was hired to lead Achievement for All Children. Achievement for All Children, the reporters noted, was picked to “turn around” Southside-Ashpole Elementary, a “foundering public school” in the state.
But what Kelly and Perlmutt left out of their reporting was that Achievement for All Children was a charter management company previously led by Tony Helton, who, as I reported, had previously worked for Bryan’s firm TeamCFA. Also, they completely left out the fact that Southside-Ashpole was under the control of the state because it was a school—the only school—incorporated into the ISD.
While Kelly and Perlmutt noted Cotham’s years as a lobbyist included a business relationship with C. Philip Byers, whom the article called “a major donor to state Republicans” and “president of a company that built charter schools,” the reporters didn’t mention that the company he led (Challenge Foundation Properties) was part of Bryan’s Challenge Foundation enterprises.
Cotham’s ties to right-wing individuals and organizations promoting charter schools don’t stop there, as my article reported. But wouldn’t it stand to reason that if Kelly and Perlmutt were to examine all the various possible influencers in Cotham’s decision to switch parties, then focusing on the billionaire in the room would make the most sense?Further, reporting that Cotham’s switch to the Republican Party was mostly because of her changing relationships with fellow legislators, on both sides of the aisle, as the Times article suggests, trivializes a matter of huge import in a state that figures to be pivotal in the 2024 elections. It also overlooks the growing influence of the big money behind the charter school industry in American politics and its destructive force in the Democratic Party.
This article was produced by Our Schools.
Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.