Conservative leaders pave the way for privatization of education

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North Carolina's conservative leaders are doing their best to privatize education in our state. At that same time that our state's teacher pay and per-pupil spending are some of the lowest in the country, legislators are spending millions of dollars of taxpayer money to fund private schools. The budget has $11 million earmarked for private school vouchers this year, and $24 million for next year. Traditional private schools, which typically have a religious affiliation, and online charter schools, however, have yet to prove to be as effective as public education. While some private schools do exceedingly well, most perform as good or worse than public schools.

Read more at NC Policy Watch

Since taking charge in Raleigh, conservative lawmakers have been steering public dollars into a range of alternatives to traditional public schools that march under the banner of “school choice.”

Beginning as a trickle, but with the potential to become a flood, spending is growing for vouchers to pay tuition at private and religious schools; an expanded roster of charter schools run by for-profit companies; and two virtual charter schools operated by a scandal-plagued company.

Meanwhile, those same legislators are squeezing conventional K-12 schools with budgets that place North Carolina near the bottom of national rankings for teacher pay and per-pupil spending. A central rationale for providing these alternatives is that traditional schools fall short in educating children from low-income households and communities, children of color and children with special needs.

But even as they cite end-of-grade test results and other data to demonstrate the shortcomings of conventional schools, the legislators are requiring no such accountability from voucher programs and charters. So far, there is no evidence that at-risk children fare better on average in the alternative settings and an abundance of anecdotal examples in which they are clearly worse off.

School vouchers of $4,200 a year, formally known as “Opportunity Scholarships,” are touted as a way to help low-income and minority children who are falling behind in their local public schools by providing access to better options in private ones. The program is strongly embraced by conservatives, but there is concern about accountability in their own ranks.

Near the end of the 2015 legislative session, a group of Republicans in the House banded together to block a proposal by school voucher champion state Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam (R-Wake) that would have put the voucher program on track for a major expansion. Among them was state Rep. Leo Daughtry (R-Johnston), who described one school in his district benefiting from the vouchers.

“I went to visit this school,” Daughtry said. “It’s in the back of a church, and it has like 10 or 12 students – and one teacher, or one-and-a-half teachers. I think you need to go slow with Opportunity Scholarships. From what I saw, [it] didn’t seem to be a school that we would want to send taxpayer dollars to.”

Before the voucher program began, there was little concern about the low level of state oversight of private schools because they received no public money. The voucher money is flowing now — $11 million this year, with $24 million budgeted for 2016 — but private schools are subject to minimal requirements for student assessment and none at all for curricula, instructional staff or financial viability. The schools can choose the pupils they want to admit and are free to provide religious instruction.

Only low-income families are now eligible for vouchers, but it is expected that those requirements will ease in the future.

Public school advocates and other stakeholders mounted a legal challenge to the program soon after its inception. They won the first round when Franklin County Superior Court Judge Robert H. Hobgood ruled that the program violated the state constitution.

“The General Assembly fails the children of North Carolina when they are sent with public taxpayer money to private schools that have no legal obligation to teach them anything,” he wrote.

Early this year, the state Supreme Court overturned Hobgood’s order, allowing the voucher program to continue without requiring any additional accountability.

In 2011, North Carolina lifted the cap on the number of charter schools that can operate in the state. When first established in the 1990s, the schools were billed as laboratories of innovation, where best practices could be developed and shared with local public school systems. With the expansion, legislators diverted more funds from traditional schools and increasingly into the hands of for-profit operators.

Data from several studies of cyber schools suggests that they do a poor job educating students. The author of one scathing recent report said the schools’ gains in math were so small that it was “literally as though the student did not go to school for the entire year.”


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