All decade, North Carolina’s conservative legislative majorities have been driving the state toward more choice in K-12 education. They continued that crusade in the most recent legislative session. We give them one small thumbs up and one big thumbs down for their efforts.
First, the thumbs down: Legislators late last week approved a dramatic and long-lasting expansion of private school vouchers, diverting hundreds of millions of dollars from public schools to private schools. The budget adds $10 million to the program next year – a 40 percent increase to $34.8 million. It then adds an additional $10 million per year until the state is spending $144.8 million per year on private school tuition. The number of students receiving the vouchers would shoot from 3,500 to 34,000.
Families with incomes a third higher than the free-and-reduced lunch level – or about $60,000 for a family of four – can apply. They receive “scholarships” worth $4,200 to defray the cost of private school.
The expansion was too dramatic even for Rep. Craig Horn, a Republican from Union County who co-chairs the House Education Appropriations Committee. Horn reasonably pointed out that it’s impossible to know what the demand for the vouchers will be 10 years from now.
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We do know other things about vouchers, though, such as:
▪ The state imposes little accountability on the private schools that receive the money. There are few or no requirements around student performance or curriculum. They don’t have to hire teachers with the same qualifications as public schools. They can admit whom they please, discriminating, for example, against LGBT students if they choose.
▪ The private schools are often religiously affiliated, and funding faith-based curricula and activities with taxpayer money is generally a bad idea.
▪ Studies from other states have shown that students receiving vouchers do not perform better than their public-school peers. Some research has shown that they actually fare worse.
▪ Vouchers divert money from public schools, which 90 percent of U.S. children attend.
Private school vouchers are a bad idea. Increasing their annual funding six-fold is a worse one.
Now for the small thumbs up: Legislators passed a bill that will allow charter schools to take over five low-performing elementary schools around the state. The Achievement School District is a pilot program designed to test whether innovative charters can perform better with some of the state’s most challenging students than traditional public schools can.
Charlotte Republican Rep. Rob Bryan’s legislation allows districts that have schools selected for the experiment to run three local schools with the same flexibility. That should provide a direct comparison.
Many public school advocates are understandably nervous about the plan. We say it’s worth a shot. It’s five schools out of 2,592 statewide. And the ability to compare the outcomes to similar traditional public schools will be revealing, whatever the results show.