In Part I of School Choice in NC: Empowering Parents and Confronting the Left’s Work to Reverse School Choice Options we showed how despite growing public support for parental choice programs in North Carolina, Gov. Cooper and his friends on the Left continue to oppose school choice and continue to work to eliminate options for parents and students.
For a governor who takes every chance to convey his concern about education, it appears that for Gov. Roy Cooper, education only means public education. Gov. Cooper has no qualms arguing for greater state oversight of state charter schools or telling the almost 6,500 recipients of the Opportunity Scholarship Program to go back to the district school they fled because Cooper believes resources should be monopolized by the public education system.
These issues are propelled by an uncomfortable reality: not all children have access to quality educational opportunities. When parents make that realization, they do one of two things. They buy themselves out of the problem by moving to a different school district or they enroll their child in a private school. Not everyone, however, has those options. Some students – through no fault of their own – are stuck in failing school districts, with no chance to access better academic opportunities. School choice helps students and families access better educational opportunities. Rather than siding with students and families, Gov. Cooper and the Left support an educational system that is resistant to reform and who is out of touch with many of its members.
While this is a challenging development, it’s not insurmountable. Four steps can help conservatives in North Carolina counter the Left’s efforts to limit school choice and expand access to educational options. These include:
Realize we ARE winning the war of ideas. There is no need for school choice supporters to be defensive. Americans embrace choice in every area of life; why not education? According to the 2018 Education Next Poll, 54 percent of public respondents’ support “wider choice” for public-school parents by “allowing them to enroll their children in private schools instead, with government helping to pay the tuition.” This poll shows a 9-percentage-point increase from last year. In addition, public backing for charter schools climbed by 5 percentage points this past year, to 44 percent, with only 35 percent opposed. [i]
Civitas Polls of North Carolina voters consistently show strong support for school choice and expanded educational options.[ii] Conservatives are winning the battle of ideas because school choice has many personal and social benefits. For instance, choice can address the safety concerns that so many families face. And allowing parents to choose their child’s school help parents tailor an educational experience that best fits their child’s individual needs. Moreover, allowing parents to choose their child’s school gets parents more involved in their child’s school and education. Schools with active and involved parents are healthier learning communities and healthier neighborhoods.
Choice also has social benefits. In a meta-analysis of research reviews, Patrick Wolfe of the University of Arkansas found that “participating in a school choice program improves student test scores by the equivalent translate of several months of additional learning.” If you’re still not convinced of the many benefits of school choice, you may want to read “A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice,” published by EdChoice.org.[iii]
Target School Choice on constituencies that can maximize its benefits. Minorities and residents of rural areas should be especially receptive to these options. Sadly, too many minority and low-income children are trapped in failing urban schools with no option to improve their learning environment.
While African Americans have consistently voiced some of the strongest support for school choice, that support has not translated to their elected representatives. Yes, there have been several exceptions at the state and national levels. But still most Democratic legislators remain strongly opposed to school choice. There is a disconnect there that needs far more recognition in the public square. In addition to greater outreach to minority and low-income urban communities, school choice advocates must also bring a new message to rural areas. The opportunity to personalize education, create new markets and relationships with industry.
Tell the truth about school choice: It’s a bipartisan issue. This is an important point. The Left is against school choice, but there are a growing number of Democrats who will sign on to school choice legislation. They do not represent the majority of the party but they do support parental choice in the form of charter schools, vouchers or online or virtual learning. In that sense school choice IS a bipartisan issue. It’s a fact, often contested at the state and national level, but school choice supporters must be eager to marshal the facts that say otherwise.
A Gallup poll question found that more Democrats agreed than disagreed with Trump’s proposal to provide federal funding for school choice programs that allow students to attend any private or public school. As recently mentioned, several Democratic legislators have come out and voiced support for school choice policies in North Carolina.[iv]
A 2017 study by Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina found that more than 8 in 10 African American voters – most of whom overwhelmingly identify with the Democratic Party – believe that state lawmakers must do more to expand educational options for families in our state. Specifically, 65 percent of African Americans said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports giving parents more educational options for their children. In addition, 64 percent of a sample of African American voters said parents should have the ability to choose the K-12 school their child attends through a state-funded scholarship.[v] In October 2017, 33 percent of registered Democrats said they support legislation creating personal Education Savings Accounts.[vi]. A March 2016 Civitas Poll of likely Democratic and Republican primary voters found that the parties supported and opposed Education Savings Accounts by nearly identical percentages. Fifty-four percent of Democrats and 55 percent of Republicans supported ESAs. Meanwhile, 28 percent of Democrats and 30 percent of Republicans opposed them.[vii]
Indeed, the initial legislation introducing a special needs personal Education Savings Account was bipartisan, sponsored by three Republicans and three Democrats. Yes, Democratic legislators still voice strong opposition to parental choice issues. However, it’s clear that Democratic voters support school choice policies in higher percentages than the Democratic legislators who represent them. For choice to successfully expand, all children must be able to benefit.
Win the battle over accountability. Schools that receive tax dollars need to be accountable and be good stewards of public dollars. The ultimate question has always been: who defines accountability?
The way government ensures that policies are working is through regulation and oversight. It is a top-down, government-centric, view of accountability. Has it worked? Are our schools performing well and using tax dollars wisely? The legacy of such thinking is an ever-expanding administrative state. Gov. Cooper claims that vouchers lack accountability. That’s not true. They have the ultimate measure of accountability: parents and students. If families are unhappy with choice schools, they can leave. Moreover, private schools still must comply with state and federal safety and health regulations. In addition, charter schools also must take the same tests as the public schools. Choice schools may not have the same reporting requirements, but why should they? Choice schools are administratively different than public schools and frequently have a different curriculum.
Public school advocates say if choice schools receive state funding, private and charter public schools should have the same requirements and be held accountable in the same way. To do so would be to treat schools that are fundamentally different in the same way; such a policy ignores the reality that the governance, purpose, mission, values, and enrollment of many private or charter schools are different from traditional public schools. These differences do not mean there is no accountability. Rather, it means the accountability structures are different.
Private schools are often accountable to regional accrediting bodies to ensure academic quality. Moreover, because of the institution’s dependence on tuition, choice or private schools are often more accountable or sensitive to parental concerns than local schools that are administered by elected officials. School choice supporters need to win the battle of how to define accountability with policies that ensure results and protect institutional autonomy. Meeting this need will help the movement grow into the future.
The steady expansion of school choice in North Carolina over the past decade is a story few states can match. The growing array of educational options have developed in direct response for calls from parents and students for an expanded educational opportunity. Expanding charter school enrollment and creating new voucher, special needs, and ESA programs have helped to foster a healthy school choice market in North Carolina.
Such developments empower students and parents but also threaten the educational establishment that has controlled the public schools for so long. Gov. Cooper and other anti-school choice lawmakers on the Left continue to champion the interests of the educational establishment over those of individual freedom and opportunity. The Left’s vision of North Carolina includes government control of how and where students are educated. It’s a vision that includes no school choice. It’s a chilling reminder of why we must work to reverse these conditions to ensure such a vision never becomes reality.
[i] Public Support Climbs for Teacher Pay, School Expenditures, Charter Schools, and Universal Vouchers, by Albert Cheng, Martin B. Henderson, Paul E. Petersen and Martin West, Education Next, Winter 2019
[ii] See Civitas Polls February 2018, January 2017
[iii] A Win- Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence for School Choice, Greg Foerster, published by EdChoice.Org
[iv] African American legislators in NC voice support for school vouchers and charters, Raleigh News & Observer, February 28, 2017. Available online at: https://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/education/article135485179.html
[v] Where Do North Carolina African-American Voters Stand on Parental School Choice? Study by Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, Published 2017. Available online at: http://pefnc.org/ncblackchoicepoll/
[vii] Finally, Something Democrats and Republicans Can Agree On: ESAs., Robert Luebke, Blog post, Civitas Review, March 24, 2016. Available online at: https://www.edchoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/2016-5-Win-Win-Solution-WEB.pdf