The Sept. 18 “Lunch and Learn: School Choice – the Road Ahead” highlighted wide public support for giving parents and students more choices in where they go to school.
The event, sponsored by Civitas and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, brought education experts and lawmakers together to survey the school choice debate today. And there is strong public support for supplying students and parents with more education options, as has been shown by a recent opinion poll from the two groups: “North Carolina K-12 & School Choice Survey,”
Paul Di Perna, Research Director for the Friedman Foundation, presented some of the key findings:
- North Carolinians are more likely to think that K-12 education is on the “wrong track” (55 percent) compared to heading in the “right direction” (29 percent).
- Voters give relatively low marks to the state’s public school system (45 percent said “good” or “excellent”; 52 percent said “fair” or “poor”).
- North Carolina voters do not know how much is spent per student in public schools. Approximately $8,518 is spent on each student in North Carolina’s public schools, and only 8 percent of respondents could estimate the correct per-student spending range for the state.
- When asked for a preferred school type, 39 percent of North Carolinians would choose a private school first.
- Voters clearly prefer universal access to ESAs, compared to access that is based solely on financial need.
These and other results suggest North Carolinians are eager for more choices in education, and other states offer successful models for NC to follow, Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation said. In Louisiana, for example, “School choice doesn’t just have to happen at the school level, it can happen at the course level,” she said. By providing alternatives for classes, in addition to schools, that state adds a whole slate of options for students.
The boldest school choice program has been launched in Arizona, she said. It is based on Education Savings Accounts, which are state-funded accounts that allow parents to pay for private schools, online learning, and other education programs. Called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts in Arizona, they “allow parents to completely customize their children’s education,” Burke said.
If those states provide good examples, she said, the teachers’ strike in Chicago provides a prime bad example. While students in the regular public system were shut out of the schools, students in charter and private schools continued to learn.
“Vouchers” can be a bugaboo in the debate. But at Lunch and Learn, the John Locke Foundation’s Terry Stoops noted that North Carolina’s preschool program is in effect “fully voucherized.” Meanwhile, huge numbers of NC college students take advantage of vouchers – except they’re called scholarships and grants. With that in mind, he said, “We need to start thinking about the middle” – offering new options for students from kindergarten to 12th grade, whether those options are called vouchers, scholarships or something else.
Meanwhile, new alternatives are arising. For example, online education offers the prospect of virtually unlimited choice. “We’re heading in the right direction, but there’s plenty of work to do,” he said.
Three NC legislators confirmed that. House Majority Leader Paul Stam (R-Wake) noted that the Civitas/Friedman poll confirmed what he’s found: there’s widespread support for school choice. But that form of public opinion is just the raw material of political change, he noted. That initial opinion needs to take a clear shape. Then political leaders have to align with those beliefs. Also, the media and opinion-makers must reflect the public’s support of educational choice, or at least not undermine it. Success in the legislature also depends on where it falls on the list of legislative priorities.
Moreover, the actual legislation must be crafted correctly, winning the trust of important stakeholders. Rep. Marcus Brandon (D-Guilford) said that many African-American families are desperate to get out of the failing schools in their neighborhoods. But they believe it is essential that school choice programs include funding for buses for students whose families may not have a car available every day to take them to a new school.
However, overall the demand is real, and school choice is proving its worth, state Sen. Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph) said. “We’re on the cusp of changing education and the public schools.” He went on to say that while he will be fully supporting school choice, as a 40-year public school employee he will also be working just as hard to improve traditional public education. He said that competition will improve education for everyone.