Superior Court Judge David Lee, who now presides over the long-running Leandro case, should hit the “pause” button on school choice programs because they make it more difficult for the state to provide a “sound, basic education” to all students. That’s Kris Nordstrom’s argument in a recent article posted on the progressive NC PolicyWatch web site.
This is a bad idea for many reasons. Let’s talk about the top four reasons.
Faulty Premises. Nordstrom says, “General Assembly leaders have moved our education system backwards in the past decade by divesting from our schools and abandoning proven programs in favor of unproven school choice schemes” No guise of objectivity here. Nordstrom uses charged terms, like backwards, abandoning, unproven and schemes. But loaded terms don’t change facts. The dictionary defines divest as “to sell off” or to rid of “through sale.” Let’s look at the numbers. Since 2010-11, if you combine state, federal and local spending, North Carolina has spent about $113.9 billion for K-12 public schools; $72.9 billion of that amount is from state dollars. North Carolina’s K-12 expenditures for public education increased every year between 2010-11 beginning with $7.27 billion (2010-11) and ending with $9.14 billion (2018-19). If we look at inflation adjusted per pupil state expenditures over the same time period, expenditures increased from $5,793 (2010-11) to $6,348 (2018-19). Likewise total expenditures (state, federal and local) also increased; from $9,443 (2010-11) to $9,665 (2018-19). Divestment is a difficult case to make when over the last decade dollars for K-12 education have actually increased and teachers have received pay raises for six years in a row.
Charters and vouchers do not increase the cost of education. Nordstrom says charter schools and vouchers add to the cost of educating students. His general argument is twofold; 1) choice “creams” better students and leaves higher-need students in the public schools and 2) charter schools take students and money away from traditional public schools and thus negatively impact those schools. Let’s look at both. If the creaming argument is true, wouldn’t the composition of charter schools be significantly different than that of traditional public schools? According to the 2019 Annual Charter School Report, charter schools have a 46 percent minority population, while traditional public schools are 52.7 percent minority population. The percentage of African Americans in charter schools is slightly higher, 26 percent compared to 25 percent in traditional public schools. The percentage of special needs students in charter schools is 10.3 percent of the student population and 12.5 percent of students in traditional public schools. Charter schools are required to “reasonably reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the general population residing within the local school administrative unit in which the school is located.” This requirement is difficult to meet at times because of charter school admission requirements, and because some charter schools are in neighborhoods that are already highly segregated by race and income. One would expect some differences based on geography and programming. The point is the composition of charter and traditional public schools are not widely dissimilar.
In recent years there has been significant discussion on how the rapid growth of charter schools has negatively impacted the finances of school districts. In 2017, Helen Ladd of Duke University published a study that found “large and negative fiscal impact in excess of $500 per traditional public school pupil in our one urban school district (Durham Pubic Schools), which translated into an average fiscal cost of more than $3,500 for each student enrolled in charter schools.”
Ladd’s study was widely circulated but not without criticism. In an article responding to Ladd’s claims, Dr. Erik Root believed a review of LEA financials pointed to a different conclusion; both local districts and charters were thriving. After adjusting for inflation, most districts have saw revenue increases, even when enrollment is declining. If counties were experiencing fiscal pressures, it is probably tied to their own decisions and significant increases in the cost of healthcare and retirement benefits which have surged over the past decade.
Likewise, contrary to what Nordstrom states, the Opportunity Scholarship Program can, and has saved taxpayers millions of dollars. Let’s run the numbers. The average scholarship award is $3,936. The cost to the state to educate a child in the public schools is $6,479. The cost to the county, $2,410. Thus, Opportunity Scholarships can save taxpayers approximately $4,953 per child. If the program was paused or eliminated, students using the program in private schools would be forced to migrate back to public schools at a significantly higher cost per student which would further strain state and local resources.
Charters and vouchers have a proven record. Nordstrom claims over the past decade proven programs have been abandoned in favor unproven charter and voucher “schemes.” A graph appears in his article showing a decline in the percentage of charter schools that have met or exceeded expected annual growth. While the outcomes are concerning, it does not overshadow other relevant results that highlight the performance of charters regarding academic performance, grade level proficiency, subject areas and subgroups (all, white, black, Hispanic, Economically Disadvantaged Students (EDS), English Language Learners (ELS), and SWD (Students With Disabilities)). These include:
- The percentage of students scoring at Level 3 or above on English/ELA EOC/EOG tests was consistently higher for charter elementary, middle and high schools than students in non-charter schools of the same type.
- The percentage of students scoring a Level 3 or above on Math EOC/EOG tests was consistently higher for charter school students in middle and high school and all subgroups than for students in non-charter schools in those levels and subgroups, except among Economically Disadvantaged Students (EDS) in high school.
- The percentage of students scoring a level 3 or above on Science EOC/EOG, was consistently higher for charter school students than non-charter school students at every level: elementary, middle and high school levels.
- When broken down by subgroup: students in charter schools outperformed students in non charter school students in Science at every subgroup level for elementary, middle and high school; except elementary school EDS students.
- The percentage of students meeting ACT Benchmarks for the general ACT, ACT-English, ACT-Math, ACT-Reading, ACT-Science and ACT-Writing was higher for charter school students than non-charter school students in all categories.
If Leandro is concerned with ensuring all students receive access to a sound basic education, the performance of minority students in charter schools cannot be ignored.
Nordstrom also argues that choice programs should be paused because voucher programs are unproven and overfunded. Again, these claims are problematic. A 2018 study by Anna Égalité and Steve Porter, both professors at North Carolina State University, found that new recipients of the Opportunity Scholarships scored significantly higher than their public school counterparts in math, reading, and language arts on a standardized test. The researchers however 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.
Nordstrom’s claim that the Opportunity Scholarship Program is undersubscribed and overfunded is one he also made in an article earlier this year. Former legislator Paul “Skip” Stam addressed the issues he raised head on in a recent letter. Stam writes:
Demand [for Opportunity Scholarship Program] continues to grow! Applications for the 2020-21 school year opened on February 1, 2020 with 7,373 new applications already submitted. New applicants and recipients have increased each year, resulting in 12,283 students enjoying their Opportunity Scholarship this school year (2019-20). There is now a waiting list of 750 eligible applicants. Ending the arbitrary quota on our youngest students would completely do away with arguments about “unused funds.” This program is in demand and serving low-income parents across our state. It empowers them with a real choice for their child’s education – many for the first time ever.
It’s difficult to find school choice in Leandro and the WestEd Report. Judge Lee should reject a pause on school choice for all the reasons stated, but for one other reason. School choice is not a significant topic of concern in either the Leandro case or the WestEd Report. The West Ed Report mentions the word school choice once, and then only within the context of Early College High School and Cooperative Innovative High Schools – not in the broad sense in which the term is traditionally used. Charter schools are mentioned briefly about contributing to higher costs (a topic previously discussed) and as well as a recommendation to remove local funding and centralize charter school funding in the state, an option advocated by school administrators. The word voucher is not mentioned in the WestEd report, while Opportunity Scholarship has one reference. To suggest school choice is a significant part of either is a misreading of the case and the WestEd Report.
Nordstrom mistakenly conflates alleged budget reductions and school choice growth to mean school choice is siphoning money from the public schools. The North Carolina Constitution provides a state responsibility to provide for the support of a uniform system of public education. Our constitution however, does allow the General Assembly to create, fund and administer educational initiatives (e.g. scholarships etc. ) in addition to and apart from the uniform public school system (Hart v. State). The funding for programs such as the Opportunity Scholarship or Disabilities Scholarship Grant is funding which is separate from traditional public schools and administered by different agencies. As such, there is no linkage in the funding. You can’t say, the $40 million in funding going to the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) would be going to the public schools if the scholarship program didn’t exist. There is no linkage. Hence it makes no sense to say OSP – or any other choice program – is taking money from the public schools because the programs are funded and administered by separate agencies. Yet the claims continue.
The growth of school choice in North Carolina is one of the biggest education stories of the last decade. Today one in five students in North Carolina attends a charter school, private school or home school. School choice expands educational opportunity for those who need it most. It empowers parents to find a school that fits their needs. Choice provides opportunities that otherwise may not exist. And that’s why school choice is popular, growing and works in a diverse state and nation.
School choice programs offer children access to a better education and a better life. It’s a way to make good on a promise to expend opportunity and education to all – and especially those with limited resources. Nordstrom and other progressives also make the case for equal opportunity and expanded educational opportunities for those who need them most, the poor and minorities. However, they then turnaround and advocate for shutting down charter and voucher programs which help thousands of children. Why? That is a question those children are longing to understand.
 North Carolina Public Schools Current Expenditures, FY 2010-11 to FY 2018-19, Fiscal Research Division
 Figures from Fiscal Memo, April 6, 2020. Fiscal Research Division of North Carolina General Assembly.