The recent decision by the State Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of school vouchers has turned supporters toward the future and critics toward raising the volume on public discussion. Despite the decision, progressives and other members of the left continue the same drumbeat: using public tax dollars for individuals to attend private schools is unconstitutional; voucher schools provide little accountability and the recent court decision is bad for North Carolina and our public schools.
Reasons to think otherwise, however, are numerous and compelling.
Plaintiffs in the voucher case argued that North Carolina’s Constitution limited public tax dollars “exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools.” The majority of the North Carolina State Supreme Court didn’t agree.
The fulcrum of the plaintiff’s case comes at the end of a long discussion about what and how public monies are to be spent on the public schools. However the key section – which plaintiffs ignored — comes right before the quoted section in Article IX, Section 6: “together with so much of the revenue of the State as may be set aside for that purpose.” Translation: the General Assembly can supplement designated revenue sources with other monies to fund public schools, meaning, the North Carolina Constitution doesn’t prohibit the General Assembly from funding other education programs. The majority of justices on the State Supreme Court agreed.
The Court viewed the General Assembly’s actions with regard to Opportunity Scholarships as merely another form of policy making, a task the Court has been hesitant to challenge in recent years. The decision was also another way for the court to say, if you don’t like what the General Assembly is doing, the solution is at the ballot box – not the courtroom.
While it’s true the voucher case involved the state constitution and state courts, it is important to note that in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) the US Supreme Court upheld the flow of public tax dollars to private schools. The court said the Cleveland, Ohio voucher program did not violate the first amendment because it passed a five part school choice test: the program has a valid secular purpose, aid must go to the parents, and not to the schools, a broad class of beneficiaries must be covered, the program must be neutral with regard to religion and there must be nonreligious options available. North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship program meets every one of these tests.
Voucher critics wax indignant when asked about using public tax dollars to fund private education. They shouldn’t because North Carolina has been providing tax dollars for private education for years.
Since it began in 2001-02, the NC Pre-K program has served over 292,000 students at an average cost of $5,000. The program formerly known as More at Four, provides vouchers for kids to attend private or public child care facilities. North Carolina’s $400 million subsidized childcare program, Smart Start, provides care for 85,000 children across the state, including more than 8,000 children in private facilities, many of which are church-related.
Students pursuing postsecondary education in North Carolina also enjoy considerable choice. State or federal financial assistance allows students to enroll in private institutions such as Duke, Elon or High Point or the public colleges of the UNC System.
If kindergartners and college students already enjoy school choice, why shouldn’t the 1.5 million K-12 students attending the 2,500 public schools in North Carolina? For years, critics haven’t uttered a word in opposition to using public money to help students attend private institutions. Why the opposition now? It’s disingenuous and selective.
School choice critics continue to argue that voucher programs lack accountability and do not further a “public purpose.”
It’s a misreading of history to suggest private schools don’t have a public purpose. One of the overriding purposes of education – whether public or private — is to create good citizens who contribute to and strengthen society. The fact is, private schools have been molding students into citizens longer than public schools, and frequently at lower cost. Catholic schools have successfully educated generations of immigrants, poor and minority school children in some of the worst parts of America’s largest cities. Who will say these schools did not work to strengthen our nation and work toward the public good?
The same thing can be said about outcomes achieved by many private hospitals, charities, social service organizations and foundations all financed with private money but directed toward furthering the public good and public purpose. It’s a distinction without a difference.
Opponents criticize the Opportunity Scholarship program because they say it lacks accountability. But where is the accountability when nearly 29 percent of traditional public and charter schools received D and F scores on the state’s most recent report card? For the longest time the only option available to most parents was to hope that schools would improve. Sadly most haven’t.
Let’s remember all provisions needn’t look the same to be accountable. There are obvious differences in governance between public and private schools. Since parents pay tuition, and tuition constitutes a significant portion of a private school’s budget, private schools are predisposed to be more sensitive to parental concerns. These realities constitute a built-in accountability mechanism which doesn’t exist in traditional public schools.
Voucher opponents frequently point to testing and teacher certification requirements as areas where voucher schools should have the same requirements as the public schools. While some may think these useful, there is no relationship between teacher certification and student achievement. Public school advocates argue that private schools should be required to take the same tests as public schools. Since the curriculum in many private schools is different from what is taught in public schools, in practice, such an idea would do more harm than good.
That said, it is important to realize the legislation enacting the Opportunity Scholarship program into law did include several provisions to enhance accountability. Schools that enroll voucher students are required to administer at least once a year a national standardized test – or its equivalent – that measures achievement in English, reading, spelling and mathematics, and schools are required to report the results. Finally, schools that enroll more than 25 scholarship students will be required to provide the aggregate standardized test performance of scholarship students to the State Education Assistance Authority (SEAA).
Voucher critics say the diversion of funds to private schools spell the end of public education. Really? Let’s look at the numbers. Total General Fund appropriations for North Carolina public schools in 2014-15 were $8.1 billion. Total spending for Opportunity Scholarship program over the same time period was $10.1 million. Bottom line: that means spending on vouchers is slightly more than one-tenth of one percent of total K-12 education spending. The end of public education? Hardly.
On the contrary, there is a growing body of research that suggests vouchers work to improve public education because public schools are forced to compete with private schools for students.
Such claims about “the end” of public education are problematic for another reason. Inherent in the claim is the expectation that vouchers would begin an exodus of students and dollars from the traditional public schools. It’s more than unsettling that the concern of progressives and those on the left is placed primarily on the impact of choice on the system – and not on the education of students. If an exodus from the schools does happen, why does no one stop and ask a far more important question: why are students leaving?
The Opportunity Scholarship program is based on two truths: all students deserve the opportunity to receive a quality education; and parents should be able to choose the school where their child attends. That 5,000 parents applied for half that many scholarship slots demonstrates that many feel the same way.
Progressives and those on the left continue to fight the expansion of educational freedom with fear and the same old weak arguments that don’t work.
By upholding the constitutionality of the voucher program, the State Supreme Court gave voice to those parents. It’s a significant victory for those who believe educational opportunities should be expanded for all students, and offers a timely rebuke to a progressive vision that says the government decides what students learn and where students attend school.
The growth of school choice in North Carolina will be good for students, parents and schools. It can’t happen soon enough.