Why NC needs to hit the pause on school choice until we meet students’ basic needs

June 10, 2020 5:00 am

When you’re stuck in a hole, the best advice is to stop digging.

Few would dispute that North Carolina’s public schools currently find themselves in a hole. Over the past decade, Raleigh’s lawmakers have chosen to prioritize tax cuts for the rich over investing in our students. Over this period, student achievement has stalled with shockingly few high school graduates prepared for college-level coursework. The opportunity gaps faced by Black, Latinx and Native American students, and those from families with low incomes, have remained persistently high. Racial and economic segregation have increased.

The hole our schools find themselves in has been well documented by North Carolina’s Leandro court case. In 1994, five school districts sued the state for its failure to meet its constitutional duty to provide equal educational opportunities for all students. In the ensuing decades, the courts have consistently found that state leaders have failed to meet their constitutional obligations to children.

In 2017, the courts sought outside expertise to diagnose the problems facing North Carolina’s school system and provide direction on how policymakers can create a system that provides every child access to a sound basic education. That report confirms what advocates have been saying for years: 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. It provides lawmakers with an eight-year plan for new programs and investments that will finally deliver our children with the education they are owed.

Given the hole we find ourselves in, it would make sense then for lawmakers to stop making the hole deeper. That is, they should end policies that make it more difficult for the state to deliver a sound basic education to all students. More specifically, they should halt school choice programs that increase the costs for meeting students’ needs.

In North Carolina, charter schools and vouchers increase the costs of educating students. Both programs should be paused until we have a system that meets students basic needs.

North Carolina’s main voucher program, the Opportunity Scholarship, likely costs the state over $30 million per year. Almost half of vouchers go to students who would have attended a private school even in the absence of a voucher, negating any budgetary savings from students leaving the public school system. Additionally, the program is consistently over-funded, leaving millions in state bank accounts that should instead be helping our kids.

As documented by a recent Duke University report, the voucher program is arguably the least accountable program of its kind in the country. Voucher schools do not ha-e to comply with any meaningful quality standards or submit to any measures of state accountability. About 70% of voucher schools use biblically based curricula that directly contradict notions of a sound basic education.

Our charter sector similarly increases the barriers to providing a sound basic education. Research has consistently found that North Carolina’s charter schools increase educational costs for school districts while increasing racial segregation.

One might argue that these increased costs would be worth it if charter schools were delivering superior results. However, the best available evidence indicates that traditional schools have been outperforming charters for the past four years.

Vouchers and charter schools make it more difficult for the state to meet its basic constitutional obligation to children. Still, lawmakers press ahead with expanding both. Absent legislative action, funding for vouchers will increase by more than 15% in July. Eight new charter schools are expected to open this coming school year, bringing the total number to 204.

There’s no reason for our state to continue down this path. We are in a hole. We can stop digging.

The next major step in the Leandro court case will come early next week when Judge Lee is expected to release an order detailing the short term actions necessary for creating a constitutional public school system. To date, choice programs have not been a big part of Leandro discussions, but that should change. Vouchers and charter schools make it more difficult for the state to deliver the quality education we owe our children. Judge Lee should require the state to halt expansion of school choice programs until we finally deliver all children a sound basic education.

Legislative leaders are intent on digging a deeper hole. It’s time for Judge Lee to take away their shovel.

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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.