Public school advocates on the Left in North Carolina increasingly claim that parental choice and the public schools are a zero-sum policy option.
“When parental choice expands, the public schools are hurt.”
“Parental choice takes away needed funds and weakens the public schools.”
“It’s also a major reason why one in five students are opting out of traditional public schools for charter, private or home schools.”
The News and Observer recently ran an article on the topic and poignantly asked in the title; does it matter? Quotes were received from education watchers on both sides of the issue. Conspicuously absent were quotes from parents, the group that actually is most impacted by the changing mix of private and public educational options. Such things matter a great deal to parents who try to find the best educational option for their children, one that fits not only their child’s academic, social and developmental needs but also affirms parental values. Why no parents were interviewed for the article, I don’t know. But I’m certain I’m not the only one who wonders why.
Public school advocates on the Left are quick to wag a finger at parental choice policies. Some allege a nefarious plot engineered by ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) to dismantle the public schools in favor of their donors who’d rather try to monetize what should be a public good. It’s a tired sound bite whose only goal is to whip up the hard Left into a frenzy.
State appropriations for public education are up $600 million from the previous year and have increased eight years in a row. Last year North Carolina spent $13.1 billion on K-12 public schools. Teachers are scheduled to receive their fifth pay raise in a row and the average teacher salary will soon increase to $53,700.[i] Dismantling public education? The facts say otherwise.
But that’s the point; Liberals on the left never much cared about facts. They continue to wail that school choice policies siphon away needed resources and weaken the public schools. In 2017-18, funding for the Opportunity Scholarship Program, Disabilities Scholarship and Personal Educational Savings Account (not yet fully operational) was about $38.5 million or about four-tenths of one percent of last year’s $8.9 billion-dollar public school budget.[ii]
Let’s remember that the most popular choice option for the majority of students is a charter school. This fall North Carolina could have up to 185 charter schools and enroll well over 100,000 students. Last year charter schools received $580.7 million in state funding.[iii] But since charter schools are public schools, it’s hard to make a case that this money is being siphoned away. Charter schools are different from traditional public schools and an increasingly popular option for public school students who want a different type of public school education. No, charter schools aren’t perfect. But I don’t know any school that is. But last time I checked being a different type of public school was not a crime. The Left opposes charter schools for any number of wild reasons (e.g. charter schools screen students or increase segregation etc.) all of which have been addressed by charter school advocates. I simply ask: who gave the Left the right decide what public-school education should look like?
If the Left is not opposing parental choice, they point out that Republican funding levels fail to match pre-recession highs. Interestingly, the Left has demanded that be the benchmark to which all funding must be compared. Why? I guess because it represented the most recent highwater mark for public school funding. Highwater funding is not synonymous with a “golden age” in public education North Carolina. In 2008-09 the five-year graduation rate was 71.8 percent.[iv] Sixty-four percent of all students in Grades 3-8 achieved grade level proficiency (Achievement Level III) in math and reading. For Hispanics the numbers fell to 49 percent and Black 44 percent. North Carolina’s math and verbal SAT scores were a combined 10 points behind the national average. Only three of eight tests of fourth and eighth graders in math, reading, science and writing scored above the national average. [v]
The Left is in love with the pre-recession era because it was a period of greater spending. Between 2005-09, per student spending increased from $7,328 (2005) to $8,712 (2009). Enrollment increased 4.3 percent but total staffing increased 9.4 percent.[vi] Yes, spending was increasing, but it was mostly for additional staffing, not classroom needs. And this is the problem: public-school advocates on the Left have succeeded in keeping the discussion on inputs and alleged threats posed by parental choice. The Left says school funding and teacher pay are inadequate. It’s a constant mantra. Yet has anyone ever heard someone from the Left say what is adequate teacher pay or a sufficient sum to educate students? The term adequate implies a specified number of comparison, but you will never hear it from the Left.
At the May teacher rally in Raleigh, Civitas interviewed numerous teachers and asked what they thought an adequate salary for teachers was. Not a single teacher named a number. It’s great coaching by activist leaders. It also shows the rest of us that the Left really isn’t about policy, it’s about agitating and always pushing for control.
Wagging a finger at parental choice diverts attention away from the limited educational options of so many students and the inability of so many schools to meet those needs. Parents should have the right to choose the school that best fits their child. That so many activists are more concerned with the impacts of school choice on public schools than with addressing the reasons why parents are choosing other educational options is a troubling and telling statement.
Parents choose other educational options to address the individual needs of their children. That parents in North Carolina have more educational options is a good thing. Why parents choose those options is information vital to the public discussion, regardless of whether organizations, or news outlets, feel otherwise.
[i] Figures from 2018-19 state budget, Highlights of North Carolina Public School Budget 2018, published by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and personal correspondence.
[ii] ABCs of Public School Choice, 2018, EdChoice.org.
[iii] Highlights of North Carolina Public School Budget, 2018, published by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.
[vi] Statistical Profile of North Carolina Public Schools. Available online at http://apps.schools.nc.gov/ords/f?p=145:1