In honor of National School Choice Week, Civitas provides responses to some commonly asked questions about school choice.
What is school choice and why should we celebrate National School Choice Week?
School choice is based on two fundamental truths: all children are different, and all children deserve access to a quality education. Children come from different backgrounds, learn and grow in different ways and have different abilities. We do them a disservice when we demand a one-size-fits-all approach education.
Access to a quality education, that meets a child’s needs, is one of the best gifts a parent can give a child. Last year school choice programs, using public and private funds, helped to make those gifts a reality for more than 466,000 students.[i] Choice empowers parents using public and private funds to access the best K-12 education options for their child. When a child is matched to a school that fits their academic, social and emotional needs, it can be a life-changing event. Providing this opportunity for all children is what school choice is all about.
National School Choice Week began in 2011. Over the past seven years over 58,000 events have been held across the country that recognize the different educational options available to students and highlighting the benefits of school choice. This week we celebrate the progress of the school choice movement and all the lives that have been changed by these efforts.
What does school choice look like in North Carolina?
School choice in North Carolina includes traditional public schools, public magnet and charter schools, private schools, online academies, and homeschooling. A breakdown of the major school choice options includes:
Traditional Public Schools
Total Students 1,552,638 (ADM membership)
Number of Schools: 2,461
Source: Highlights of the North Carolina Public School Budget, February 2018
Total Students: 109,000
Charter Schools: 184
Source: Highlights of the North Carolina Public School Budget, February 2018
Total Students: 101,775
Number of Private Schools: 767
Source: Private School Statistics, State of North Carolina, Office of Non-Public Education, 2018
Total Students: 135,749
Number of Schools: 86,753
Source: Home School Statistics, State of North Carolina, Office of Non-Public Education, 2018
Does school choice take money from the public schools?
Let’s start by remembering that if a child leaves the public-school system the school is relieved of its duty to educate the child. That’s true whether the child enrolls in a private school or a public charter school. When students leave the public schools to attend another school, the schools are affected the same way they would be if a child attending a public school moved to another school district or state. One major difference, however, is that while schools will lose state funding when a child leaves the public school, schools can keep almost all the money they would have received in federal and local funding when a child enrolls in a school choice program in another school.
There is considerable research evaluating the fiscal effects of private school choice programs. An evaluation of 42 studies assessing the fiscal effects of private school choice programs found that 39 programs generated net fiscal savings for taxpayers while the other three were found to be revenue neutral.[ii]
All schools, whether they be private or public, have fixed and variable costs. Fixed costs are costs that are constant regardless of the level of goods or services provided. Utilities and rent are two examples of fixed costs for a school. In contrast, variable costs fluctuate based on the quantity of goods or services provided. Number of teachers or instructional staff is a variable cost. Most public-school costs are variable. They will increase when more students enroll and decline when students leave. It’s important to note that this has always been the case – even before school choice became an option for students.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, school choice programs have had the effect of boosting support for public schools. Per pupil spending may increase because of fewer students. State and local governments may increase per student spending following creation of a school choice program. Do school choice programs in North Carolina take money from the public schools? In upholding the constitutionality of the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the state Supreme Court ruled that public funds may be spent on other types of education besides the public schools, that the Opportunity Scholarship Program did not create an alternate system of publicly funded private schools and that funding additional educational opportunities served a public purpose.[iii]
However, if you still want to examine the numbers, a comparison may be instructive. In 2017-18 the value of choice programs whose dollars went to private schools (remember charter schools are public schools) totaled approximately $55.5 million dollars. In 2018 the public schools in North Carolina received $8.93 billion in General Fund appropriations. School choice program dollars to private schools total approximately six-tenths of one percent of the public-school budget.
Are school choice programs accountable?
School choice critics often assert that choice programs lack accountability. This assertion is based on misinformation and a limited definition of accountability. Charter schools and private schools that accept vouchers or scholarship grants are accountable to their students in a variety of ways. First, it should be emphasized that all charter and private schools are required to comply with all health, safety, and nondiscrimination regulations. Charter schools also have the same curriculum and testing requirements as traditional public schools. If charter schools fail to meet the requirements stipulated in their charter, the school is shut down. No other type of school is subject to such strong requirements.
The Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) is the largest voucher program in North Carolina. In addition to complying with all health, safety and nondiscrimination requirements, voucher schools are also required to meet certain academic and financial requirements. Each OSP school that receives more than $300,000 in tuition revenue must conduct a financial review and have the results forwarded to the State Education Assistance Authority (SEAA), the agency that administers the OSP. If the review reveals problems with how funds were administered, the SEAA may withhold future funds. Once a year, OSP schools are also required to administer a nationally standardized test to all students whose tuition is paid in full or in part by the scholarship. Schools are required to report the scores of OSP students to the SEAA. OSP schools that enroll more than 25 students are also required to report aggregate scores and graduation rates to SEAA. In addition, they must provide parents of OSP students a written explanation of their student’s academic progress including the Nationally Standardized Test scores. OSP schools also help to preserve academic quality through membership in local or regional private accrediting agencies. Such steps are taken by the schools themselves and not compelled by the force of law.
Finally, we all know that parents – not the state – are entrusted with ultimate accountability. Because parents are the ones who select choice schools, choice schools know they must work hard to be responsive to the concerns of parents. If they aren’t, the students – and the tuition revenue they bring – disappear. Such provisions serve to not only benefit choice schools but public schools as well, since parents and administrators know students can transfer to another school if parents are dissatisfied. Unfortunately, this type of accountability is lacking in most traditional public schools because funding is provided by the state and schools operate as monopolies.
Does school choice work?
Before addressing the question of whether school choice programs “work,” we should recognize there are many individual and social reasons to support school choice. School choice respects values and reduces social conflicts. Choice expands individual freedom, empowers the poor and increases opportunity. Choice also infuses a sorely needed competitive impulse into a monopolistic educational system.
How do we know if school choice works? “Works” is a loaded term. For whom? We might ask. Parents, students, schools, taxpayers? Each has a stake in school choice. School choice has been an option for most students in North Carolina for less than a quarter century. Charter school legislation was passed in 1996 and the 100-school cap was lifted in 2011. The Opportunity Scholarship and Disabilities Grant Scholarships were approved in 2013, and Personal Education Savings Accounts in 2017. Still there is data available to help answer that question.
A 2018 study by Anna Egalite and Steve Porter, both professors at NC State University, found that Opportunity Scholarship recipients scored significantly higher on math, reading and language arts on the Iowa Basic Skills tests than their public school counterparts.
The researchers cautioned against generalizing about the findings, since researchers had difficulty in finding a larger number of matches. Still the findings are positive and encouraging. Another aspect of the study that was encouraging concerned parental satisfaction. Of the 2,425 Opportunity Scholarship parents surveyed, 94 percent reported being very satisfied with their child’s new school environment. This may be the most important measure of all.
In comparison with traditional public schools, charter schools bested their counterparts in the percentage of students taking the ACT and the percentage meeting the UNC admission benchmarks in various subject areas. Charter school students had a higher percentage of students that met the benchmark in every subject area.
However, the benefits of choice are not limited to recipients. An analysis of 42 evaluations of the effects of school choice competition on the performance of public schools by Egalite and Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas found,
“that the test scores of all or some public-school students increase when schools are faced with competition. Improvements in the performance of district schools appear to be especially large when competition spikes but otherwise, is quite modest in scale.”
Improvements in student achievement in the public schools are important markers that can help demonstrate school choice is working. However, another important indicator if a program is working is growth and demand. Charter schools and the Opportunity Scholarship Program are both experiencing significant growth. Such developments reflect the growing popularity of the program and high satisfaction levels among students and parents. People vote with their feet.
If people value a program or service, public demand grows. If not, demand wanes. Approximately 55,000 students are wait-listed for public charter schools. Similarly, wait-lists for the Opportunity Scholarship Grant Program could be as high as 3,100 students. The Disability Grant had a wait-list of about 330 and the ESA Program almost 1,000.[iv] These numbers suggest choice programs are working and that parents and students want more educational options.
[i] The ABCs of School Choice, 2018 Edition, published by EdChoice.org. Available online at: https://www.edchoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/ABCs-of-School-Choice-2018-Edition-1.pdf
[ii] How Does School Choice Affect Public Schools Funding and Resources? Available online at: https://www.edchoice.org/school_choice_faqs/how-does-school-choice-affect-public-schools-funding-and-resources/
[iii] Hart v. State, 774 S.E. 2d 281 (N.C. 2015) and Richardson v. State, 774 S.E. 2d 304 (N.C. 2015)
[iv] Wait-list estimates compiled from available data from web-site and correspondence with relevant offices.