- Traditional public schools educate around 80 percent of K-12 students in North Carolina.
- Expanding choice incentivizes traditional public schools to be more in touch with parent and student needs.
- In order to adapt to those needs, traditional public schools should have more financial and administrative autonomy.
Last week was National School Choice Week and many ardent supporters of school choice took advantage of the opportunity to shine a light on the benefits of a thriving education marketplace.
At Civitas, we addressed some frequently asked questions about school choice and pointed out that there is still work that can be done at the state level to better meet parental demand. The Civitas School Choice Poll found that North Carolinians support the concept of school choice, support the specific choice programs that operate in North Carolina, and want more educational options.
Most of our writing and research last week centered on private, public charter, and homeschools. In North Carolina, about one in five students attends an alternative to traditional public schools.
But what about traditional public schools, and the 80 percent of North Carolina students that they are responsible for educating?
School choice advocates are often accused of wanting to prop up non-traditional schools, and the minority of students that they represent, at the expense of the majority of students that remain in traditional public schools. This accusation could not be farther from the truth.
As the name implies, schools of choice are just that – a choice. The “default” option for most students is to attend their neighborhood public school. And for many students, the public schools serve them well. Without schools of choice, traditional public schools have a monopoly on the education marketplace.
There are two major reasons why a monopoly is harmful to all North Carolina students. First, although students within an area have no choices under that model, families do have a choice about which neighborhood in which to live. As we know, the reality is that only some families have the full array of choice in where to live. Other families cannot afford to live in certain neighborhoods. Houses located in high-quality school districts are likely to be more expensive, meaning that low-income families get priced out. This perpetuates a cycle where lower-income families may struggle to find a school to match their academic and social needs.
Second, a traditional public school monopoly can harm students because it creates a disconnect between the school and the needs of students and parents. When there is no competition, quality is certain to suffer. This can manifest in several ways, including lack of desired curriculum, mismatch of values, administrative bloat, or even lower academic quality.
In North Carolina, academic performance of traditional public schools has been mostly stagnant for years, despite changes in funding levels over time. For example, state NAEP scores have remained essentially the same for the past 15 years. Opponents of school choice claim that traditional public schools are underfunded. When adjusted for inflation, public schools have 3 percent less funding in 2017 than they did in 2007 (Source: DPI, Table 23). Despite fluctuations in funding during that period, results did not increase or decrease significantly. What critics fail to note is that money is not the answer to the state’s educational challenges. And despite steady funding increases for traditional public schools in recent years, school choice options continue to gain popularity.
If money alone isn’t the answer for improving the state’s traditional public schools, what can we do to support them in educating 80 percent of students?
Competition into the education marketplace helps traditional public schools by creating incentives for school leaders to be more in touch with the wishes of parents. In competing for parents, local boards of education or principals will have to be more innovative. This is not to say that the individuals in those positions don’t currently consider parental impact. But the popularity of school choice in the state shows that there is room for traditional public schools to be more responsive to the populations they serve.
The latest Civitas School Choice Poll found that only 35 percent of traditional public school parents would choose to educate their child in a traditional public school, if resources were not a problem. The fact is, some parents feel trapped in their current school due to lack of resources. This demonstrates what we have long known: school choice has always been available for those who can afford it, while those who cannot are trapped.
The third of surveyed parents that would remain in traditional public schools regardless of resources are satisfied with the results. But the other 65 percent of parents could teach us a lot about the areas in which our schools could improve, if we have the time and capacity to listen.
A key way that state lawmakers can help traditional public schools better meet parental needs? Increasing flexibility at the local and school levels. This means less burdensome testing regulations and more local autonomy on issues like class size, calendar setting, and teacher and staff compensation. In order to be competitive, traditional public schools need to be able to adapt to meet parental demand and student needs. Part of the pushback from traditional public schools against expanding school choice is that schools feel they lack the ability to compete successfully. This is a valid point and should be an easy fix – give traditional public schools flexibility, as well.
In a true education marketplace, traditional public schools are a perfectly fine choice for parents to make. But it is paternalistic to insist that families should only have one option for their child’s education unless they can afford otherwise. Quality under a monopoly is almost certain to be sub-par.
Free-market conservatives often take issue with some of the specifics of the present structure of the system, but not with government-funded schools themselves. For educational choice, an “all of the above” philosophy is the one that best facilitates the benefits of an open market system. Under that model, all parents – regardless of income – can choose the best educational options for their child and help to ensure that all schools are working to serve the needs of students.