- North Carolina’s traditional public schools are not being “starved,” despite Leftist claims to the contrary
- State government should support all varieties of high-quality education
- Enabling more students and families to “vote with their feet” will help break up the traditional school monopoly and introduce more competition, which improves quality
The Raleigh News & Observer recently reported that around 20 percent of North Carolina’s students are currently educated outside of the traditional public school system. Part I of this article highlighted the benefits of this finding. Diversity in the education marketplace allows families to better match their preferences. It also creates competition, a force that drives up quality.
The Left is twisting the narrative by accusing the Republican-controlled General Assembly of “starving” traditional public schools to push students out. There are two problems with this manufactured argument.
The first is that the numbers simply do not bear it out. North Carolina spends 39 percent of its state General Fund appropriations on K-12 public education.1 This year, teachers received their 5th consecutive pay raise. The total operating budget for K-12 education in the 2016-2017 school year was $13.1 billion.2 How does that equate to a “starving” system?
Moreover, the Left likes to point out that “adjusted for inflation, per-pupil funding is less today than it was 10 years ago.” Using this historical high-water mark of spending is purposefully misleading and lacking in context.
The 2008 spending levels were reached only after a 25-year period in which K-12 spending per pupil nearly doubled, even after adjusting for inflation. The overall trend is indisputable: the “pre-recession level” of 2008-09 marked a decades-long unsustainable run-up of K-12 education spending.
Additionally, the Left claims that the General Assembly is intentionally “starving” traditional public schools in order to make them less attractive to families. If this were true, traditional public schools would have seen their performance indicators plummet over the past decade. According to their narrative, the alleged “decrease” in spending since 2008 should result in declining outcomes.
This has not been the case, however. On indicators such as National Assessment of Education Progress scores, SAT scores, and grade-level proficiency percentages, the statewide averages have remained relatively flat for traditional public schools since 2009.
Obviously, there is no cause for celebration when performance indicators stagnate. But this debunks the Left’s claim that traditional public schools are being intentionally harmed. It also demonstrates that spending increases alone are not a silver bullet for education improvement. This suggests that the 2008 spending level idolized by the Left was, in fact, funneling money into wasteful facets of the traditional public school system with no direct impact on outcomes.
There is certainly room for improvement in student performance, but the path forward likely lies with increasing flexibility for teachers and principals, providing families with more educational options, and targeting money into classrooms and away from wasteful bureaucracies.
There is a second, subtler piece of the liberal argument that is just as faulty as the first, but potentially more dangerous to the students of North Carolina. The Left frames the conversation around education as though it is a zero-sum game: if you support school choice, you must be an enemy of traditional public schools, they claim. Don’t be fooled by the rhetoric.
It is possible to support school choice and traditional public schools. In fact, most education stakeholders likely do so. The objective of the school choice movement is to incentivize the development of high-quality education options. Traditional public schools are not exempt from that goal.
As previously discussed, school choice policies have the potential to increase the quality of traditional public schools through competition. Competition inspires innovation and efficiency, which are often lacking when one category of school (i.e. traditional public schools) has a monopoly on the market.
Traditional public schools obtain their revenue through taxes, not voluntary consumers. There is a disconnect between the service consumers – students and their families – and the payment for the service, which comes from the state, local, and federal government. This can create a disconnect as schools have no direct financial incentive to meet “customer” demands in the same way that a free market supplier does.
School choice puts some of the spending power back into the hands of service recipients. When students are freer to pursue more favorable options, traditional public schools may be compelled to increase efforts to satisfy the desires of students and their families in order to prevent them – and the revenue that goes with them – from choosing other options.
This is not to say that teachers, principals, and other traditional public school employees are not in-touch with the needs of their students and their families. In fact, they are the professionals that are most equipped to adjust school policies and programs to meet student needs. Unfortunately, the most impactful system-level decisions tend to fall to state and district bureaucrats.
For this reason, school choice expansion is also not a silver bullet for solving all the problems of public education. Competitive pressure can create incentives for improvement only if regulations are lifted so that traditional public schools can adequately respond to that pressure. Under those circumstances, school choice can incentivize an increase in education quality for all North Carolina students, not just the 20 percent that attend schools of choice.
That being said, we should not assume that families choose their schools based on traditional measures of academic quality alone. There are many reasons why families may opt for one school over another.
“There’s nothing wrong with school choice itself,” an N&O editorial on the matter states. “Parents have chosen to send their children to private schools and religious schools since schools have existed.” This statement reflects a world in which only the rich have access to educational options. Not every family can afford a private school if their assigned public school is not meeting their needs.
There is no dichotomy between public school and school choice. It is possible to support quality education in all of its forms. Some liberals – including some Democrats within North Carolina’s General Assembly – feel the same way.
The loudest voices in opposition to school choice refuse to acknowledge what we all know to be true: children are different and education is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Even the highest rated schools don’t always correlate to the best choice for every child. How can policymakers or even school officials judge the needs of every student and every family? To ignore this fact and broadly disavow expanding choices is paternalistic and narrow-minded.
Twenty percent of North Carolina families have spoken loud and clear. They are better able to meet their educational needs outside of the traditional public school system. This does not necessarily mean that the student’s assigned traditional public school was “low quality” – it just means that they felt they had a better option, using the criteria that was most important to their family.
Of course, the trend also reveals that 80 percent of North Carolina students remain in traditional public schools. Some of them may feel that their assigned district school remains the best option, while others may wish they had access to one of the still-limited number of Opportunity Scholarships North Carolina offers.
Expanding school choice options enables more students and parents to vote with their feet. When presented with alternatives, more and more are choosing to walk away from their traditional public school. Such signals are excellent at conveying information about which schools are meeting or not meeting the needs of the communities that they serve, if we can cut through the misleading narrative and listen.