AT THE SCHOOLHOUSE DOOR: Privatizing Education at Public Schools' Expense

By Matt Ellinwood
Policy Analyst, Education & Law Project
May 31, 2013

A voucher scheme that would send public money to private schools is a step closer to becoming a reality after the House Education Committee advanced House Bill 944 by a narrow 27-21 margin on Tuesday.  Opposition to the bill was bipartisan (as was its support — Democrat Marcus Brandon voted in favor) with several Republicans voting against it. The highlight of the debate was an eloquent statement against the bill by Republican Chris Whitmire.

HB 944 would siphon $100 million out of the public school system over the next 3 years and funnel it into private schools by means of an “opportunity scholarship” that is really just a traditional voucher. The voucher program would increase each year, as would the income eligibility ceiling for participants. On its face, this bill is the tip of the iceberg, with a long-term goal of shifting more and more resources away from our public schools and into private hands.

During the public comment portion of the committee hearing, voucher proponents and critics made conflicting claims about whether vouchers improve or harm student achievement, leading news reports to conclude that the state of research on vouchers is divided. While it is true that not every single evaluation of voucher programs is identical, the state of voucher research is “divided” in the same way research is divided on issues like evolution or climate change. There are ideologically-drive groups like the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice that unsurprisingly conclude voucher programs are beneficial.  But the overwhelming weight of neutral academic research shows that voucher recipients either perform worse than traditional public school students or that these programs can show no positive impact on student achievement.

The committee debate made it clear that legislators who support the voucher scheme have accepted that research on student achievement is not in their favor, as their talking points shifted to the inherent value of choice rather than claiming that this bill would improve students’ education (leading to some belabored analogies about how choosing schools is just like picking out different types of milk).

But the choice that HB 944 offers is illusory. The amount of the voucher is $4,200, far less than the tuition at the majority of private schools, not to mention the most expensive and highest-performing private schools. The only new choice available to parents will be to attend the lowest-performing private schools in their area at tremendous cost to the public school system.

Vouchers suffer from major accountability problems because private schools are not subject to the same curricular, testing, or reporting requirements as are public schools.  This lack of accountability has led to serious financial and academic abuse in areas that have experimented with similar programs.

The drain that HB 944 would cause to the already minimal resources available to public schools could not come at a worse time. North Carolina has fallen to 48th in the country in per pupil spending, with increasing cuts on the horizon based on the Senate’s budget proposal. In the 1990s and early 2000s, North Carolina made a substantial commitment to get public school financing close to the national average, implemented the highest quality prekindergarten program in the nation, and instituted teacher mentoring and professional development programs that augmented the teaching profession across the state. These investments paid off, as North Carolina ranks among the top four states in the country in terms of improvement on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), the measure used to compare student achievement between states and over time, during the last 20 years. Graduation rates are at their highest levels in decades.

Each of these investments has been either scaled back or eliminated entirely in favor of ideologically-driven proposals like vouchers.  None of the top performing education systems in the world or in the nation utilize vouchers. The longest-running voucher programs are found in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington DC, all of which house devastated urban school systems that perform far worse than North Carolina schools and display gigantic achievement gaps.

HB 944 is slated to go to the House Appropriations Committee next, assuming it is not inserted into the House budget bill to become law without further opportunity for debate or standalone votes on the House and Senate floors. There is still a chance for lawmakers to reconsider investing huge sums of money into education reforms that are proven not to work and instead focus on making targeted investments in the public school system that serves the overwhelming majority of North Carolina’s children.

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