Nine ways in which “school choice” and its overzealous backers are harmful to NC public schools

By: - June 12, 2019 5:00 am

At a recent Civitas Institute panel discussion, former state senator Joel Ford lamented that – because he supports charter schools – he gets labeled as “anti-public school.”

Ford, now a board member of school choice propaganda mill Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina (PEFNC), appeared confused as to why critics throw that label at him. After all, he said, “I just think families should have more options to choose what’s best for them. For some reason that’s controversial.”

Ford clearly misunderstands (or intentionally chooses to misunderstand) the legitimate concerns of traditional public school advocates. Public school advocates aren’t mad at Ford or any other school choice booster because they  generally thinks options are a good thing. Public school advocates are mad at Ford because his advocacy harms public schools.

So why do folks think Ford and his friends are anti-public school?

  1. Charter schools and vouchers create budgetary pressures on traditional public schools: Research clearly shows that charter schools place additional fiscal burdens on traditional public school districts. The state’s funding system requires districts to shift per-student funding for each district resident enrolled in a charter school. However, districts face fixed costs that can’t be reduced on a simple per-student basis. For example, a school can’t fire part of a principal when a student leaves for another school. As a result, researchers from Duke University estimate that in Durham County the fiscal burden from charter schools equates to about $500 per traditional public school student.
  2. Charter schools exacerbate the racial segregation of public schools: Research clearly demonstrates that North Carolina’s charter schools increase racial segregation. In an examination of charter school trends from 1999 to 2012, researchers from Duke University found that North Carolina charter schools have become increasingly homogeneous, with some schools serving primarily students of color, and others serving primarily white students. My own research finds that in 72 percent of the counties with at least one charter school, charter schools increase the degree of racial segregation in the district.
  3. Choice advocates promote biased school performance grades to stigmatize traditional public schools: It is well established that North Carolina’s school performance grades are biased, doling out top grades to schools enrolling mostly children from more affluent families while “failing” those schools mostly comprised of students from families with low incomes. They tell us more about a school’s demographics than about a school’s quality. Yet PEFNC — and Ford — eagerly promotes the grades in an attempt to stigmatize traditional schools and steer families to charter and private schools. Meanwhile, school choice advocates hypocritically continue to resist efforts to gather any information on the quality of voucher schools.
  4. Charters are increasingly turning into an investment scam for real estate investors: Professors Bruce Baker, Derek Black, and Preston Green III have been documenting the way real estate investors are exploiting charter law loopholes to extract out-sized rents from charter schools at taxpayer expense. Former Utah legislator Glenn Way has used this business model in Arizona to rake in over $37 million. Way is now seeking approval to get a charter opened in Wake County, which will generate nearly $6 million per year for his for-profit companies. If the school gains approval, it will be one of approximately 40 charter schools in North Carolina operated by a for-profit charter management organization.
  5. As measured by standardized tests, charters appear to be delivering inferior results: The percentage of charter schools meeting or exceeding annual school growth is increasingly falling behind traditional public schools. Perhaps one could argue that costs associated with unfettered charter growth (i.e., budget pressures, increased segregation, degradation of schools as a shared public good, etc.)  would be “worth it” if charter schools were delivering superior results than traditional public schools. But there is no evidence that’s the case.
  6. The Opportunity Scholarship voucher program subsidizes discrimination and religious indoctrination while costing the state millions each year: The state’s largest voucher program allows schools subsidized by taxpayer funds to discriminate on the basis of religion and sexual identity. Many of these schools use religious-based curricula, such as Abeka, that pass on factually untrue information and leave students unprepared to function independently or to work with others. Not only are vouchers subsidizing discrimination, North Carolina’s program costs the state millions of dollars each year by awarding vouchers to kids who would have gone to private school even if the voucher program never existed.
  7. Charter advocates prioritize taking money from traditional public schools instead of trying to increase funding for all schools: School choice zealots like Ford will claim that they support all schools, including traditional public schools. However, their actions never support their words. The charter community’s top legislative priority every year is revoking the “Hackney amendment” in order to pull local money from traditional schools to charter schools. There are four problems with this annual push: First, the Hackney amendment isn’t a real thing. These laws were completely rewritten in 2013 by senators Dan Soucek and Jerry Tillman, who felt at that time that it made sense to allow traditional schools to keep money earmarked for specific programs that charters don’t offer. Second, the proposed flow of funding under these plans only goes one way: from traditional schools to charter schools. But charters also receive donations and grants for special programs. The charter advocates who “support all public schools” (just ask them!) never push for the flow of funds to go both ways to ensure equal funding for all students. Third, most charter schools already get more local funding than their traditional school counterparts, so taking money from traditional schools and giving it to charters would arguably exacerbate inequalities. Fourth, instead of fighting over this small sliver of local funding every year, charters would stand to gain more by advocating for adequate funding for all public schools, traditional and charter alike.
  8. Voucher and charter advocates emphasize private benefits to education, eroding the idea of education as a shared, public good: Public schools provide important shared benefits to all members of a community. Successful schools are the bedrock upon which a democratic society stands, creating not just capable workers, but engaged citizens who have healthy personal relationships and who treat others as equals. School choice erodes this notion of schools as a public good by pitting schools (and families) against each other. School choice schemes emphasize schools as a positional good, whereby the perceived level and quality of my education gives me an advantage over others. As a result, unfettered school choice incentivizes resource hoarding, prioritizing private gain over education as a shared, democratic institution for lifting up all children.
  9. Debates over choice distract policymakers from providing adequate funding and supports to help all students succeed: Despite enrolling just a small share of students, much of the General Assembly’s time is spent debating school choice issues. Because legislative time is a limited resource, this means that school choice debates eat up time that could otherwise be spent discussing the important issues faced by the majority of students. For example, legislators continue to avoid serious examination of what it would cost to ensure that all of our students have an equal opportunity to succeed while supports for high-need schools and districts have been whittled away. This appears to be a common phenomenon. Data indicates that states’ public school funding effort tends to decrease when the charter sector grows.

Hopefully this clarifies things for Ford and his fellow school choice advocates. People think you’re anti-public school because your actions inflict real, substantive harm on traditional inclusive public schools.

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Kris Nordstrom
Kris Nordstrom

Kris Nordstrom is a Senior Policy Analyst with the North Carolina Justice Center's Education & Law Project. He previously spent nine years with the North Carolina General Assembly’s nonpartisan Fiscal Research Division.