- Outgoing State Superintendent Atkinson offered misguided criticism of school choice
- But traditional “public schools” are really ‘district schools,’ and don’t accept all students
- Atkinson’s comments reflect someone interested in preserving a failed status quo
The clamor for school choice isn’t really about choice. Atkinson says, “Choice is a euphemism,” she says. “It’s saying ‘We will educate some children and forget about the other children.’”
Those pointed words are from former State Superintendent June Atkinson in a recent interview with the (Raleigh) News & Observer. The article is a rambling discussion of Atkinson’s worries about the fate of public education now that a young Republican sits in her former chair. Atkinson still seems dumbfounded as to why voters said no to her fourth term as the top public education official in NC. She also seems to be unwilling to come to grips with the new winds blowing through public education.
This is most noticeable in Atkinson’s views on school choice. It’s not news that the former superintendent is no fan of choice. What is news is her unvarnished remark that school choice leaves too many children behind.
It’s a smear with veiled racist overtones and no basis in fact.
Atkinson claims choice schools fail to take all students like public schools do. Is that true? Let’s ask: Do public schools take all students? They do take students who live in a particular region or district, and then only if they comply with certain admission requirements and codes of behavior.
As Jason Bedrick of the Cato Institute has insightfully noted:
At best, so-called “public” schools have to take all children in a particular geographic area, although they can and do expel children based on their behavior. They are more appropriately termed “district schools” because they serve residents of a particular district, not the public at large. Privately owned shopping malls are more “public” than district schools.[i]
Why this is a problem is because we all know that not all schools are good schools. We all know that education quality tends to be correlated with the income levels of local residents. So how do the public schools serve the educational needs of students trapped in low-quality schools? The reality is public schools don’t provide a quality education to all students. Some are trapped in those schools and left behind within the system.
Thousands of students – many of them from low-income families – who leave troubled schools to attend charter schools or private schools via Opportunity Scholarships would quickly take issue with Atkinson’s views on school choice.
Parents are invested in their children and know what’s best for them. That’s why they want their children to have access to better educational opportunities. These realities have propelled the expansion of the school choice movement.
Instead of embracing expanded educational opportunity, however, Atkinson has demonized the movement by claiming choice hurts the public schools financially and undermines their historical mission of teaching democratic ideals.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
You needn’t reference research or an in-depth study to come to this conclusion. Consider the following: When students leave the public schools the school district no longer has the responsibility – or cost – of educating those students. Contrary to popular belief, for many school districts school choice has actually improved per student support. This is because there are fewer students to educate. Lastly, research has shown that in many areas where school choice programs have been operating, per student support has actually increased over time. That has been the case in both Milwaukee and Cleveland, cities that have significant school choice programs operating within the city limits. Per student support in Milwaukee and Cleveland has increased 58 and 62 percent respectively over the life of the school choice programs[ii].
Atkinson and others claim that school choice drains the public schools of needed resources. This is not true. School choice can actually work to save taxpayers money. Because of lower overhead, charter schools can frequently operate at about 70 percent of the cost of traditional public schools. In addition, in North Carolina, since the cost of tuition at many of the schools attended by recipients of the Opportunity Scholarship is often lower than the average cost of educating students in traditional public schools, taxpayers will actually save money.
Because school choice chips away at the $10 billion public school monopoly, you can understand why Atkinson and others would oppose such policies.
What I don’t understand is how advocates defend such policies. There is an almost religious-like belief in the public schools as a special vehicle for building national unity, teaching democratic ideals and providing an entryway to economic opportunity.
Such beliefs animated Horace Mann, who founded the first public schools in the United States. Mann believed public schools were necessary to transcend sectarian differences, relieve anxiety over immigration, reduce social division and build national unity. Mann believed a “common school” educational experience was the solution.
One-hundred-forty-five years have passed. It’s more than enough time to see those lofty goals have not been met. Nonetheless, the mythology of the “common school’ survives.
Education is a good deserving public support. But we should question the notion of government schools as the sole or default provider of education. Education existed before schooling. As Boston University Professor Charles Glenn notes, prior to birth of the public schools in America in the 1840s, popular or elementary schooling could be acquired through a variety of arrangements that didn’t fit our classifications of public and private education. A schoolmaster might be hired by a town or a committee of citizens, and fees might be paid by local parents to a tutor to teach local children.
It’s interesting to note that in the period before the birth of the public schools in the 1840s, literacy and basic mathematical skills were nearly universal, and those students whose social status or natural ability made secondary education possible were prepared for such further study. The creation of a centralized bureaucratic educational system has not improved education or delivered on Horace Mann’s goals.[iii]
It’s against this backdrop that school choice continues to grow in North Carolina and nationally. It grows because parents have the most invested in their child’s success and because parents want to be free to pursue the best educational options for their children.
Public education is a goal to be encouraged. A government monopoly controlled largely by teacher’s unions should not be the primary means of carrying out this function.
It’s a truth that is lived out in higher education in North Carolina as well as across the country. The many private and public colleges across North Carolina demonstrate that parents want choice and the presence of a true marketplace of education options. It’s a truth former Superintendent Atkinson has been unwilling to embrace.
To say school choice is a “euphemism” discredits the efforts of all parents who have worked and sacrificed to give their child a better education. More importantly, however, Atkinson’s comments reveal a distrust of parents and their role in the education process that is very concerning. Such thinking has caused many to worry about the future of North Carolina public schools for quite some time. It also shouldn’t be discounted when explaining why last November, North Carolina voters decided they wanted new leadership for the state’s public schools.
To read a comprehensive overview of North Carolina education policy over the past 30 years, check out the Civitas Institute’s Public Policy Series.
[i] There is no Such Thing as a Public School, Jason Bedrick, Cato Institute, June 10, 2016.
[ii] [ii] Does school choice drain public schools’ funding and resources? Published by the Friedman Foundation for Education Choice, now Edchoice.org. Available online at: https://www.edchoice.org/school_choice_faqs/does-school-choice-drain-public-schools-funding-and-resources/
[iii] The Myth of the Common School, Charles Glenn, University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.