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Perspective | Is it time to hit reset on public education in North Carolina?

Opponents of school choice can be an angry lot. Their list of grievances is long; they contend school choice siphons funds from the public schools, leads to a re-segregation of schools, and erodes the idea of education as a shared public good.

Much of the anger of school choice opponents derives from a different understanding of the term “public education.” What do I mean? A brief history lesson is in order.

In North Carolina — as in the rest of the United States for that matter — public education means education developed, funded, controlled, and delivered by the government.

The North Carolina constitution speaks much about the importance of public education and calls on the legislature to create a “general and uniform system of free public schools.”

What does uniform mean? Today, North Carolina public schools are required to follow a standard course of study and take the same tests. Schools are financed in much the same way, possessing similar staffing and administrative policies. Of course, this is not to deny differences of degree, but the intent is to make a public-school education uniform; the same in Wilmington as it is in Asheville.

For a long time, the public school system worked well for many. But about 40 years ago, things started to change. The pressures of urbanization, immigration, economic upheaval, and changing moral norms started to not only challenge the foundations of the common school ideal but also to fracture the consensus that helped to sustain public education.

This is not the time to discuss the cause and impact of the changes. Suffice it to say, as these changes occurred, parents sought out other educational options. Milwaukee began the first voucher program in 1990 and Minnesota started the first public charter school in 1991. The school choice movement was born. As these programs grew so did the opposition. Critics drew a hard line between public and private schools regarding the types of benefits they produce.

We’re told public schools produce public benefits and are committed to the common good while private schools are not. Critics warn us about the creeping privatization of public education and about the loss of shared experience of public education. That loss can lead to an erosion of shared values and a balkanized society. Critics draw a hard line. In reality, the line is never that clear — especially when public funding is involved at private institutions.

When discussing the benefits of educated children, where the child is educated shouldn’t be as important as to why. The most important thing is that, whether it be a private school or public, students are being educated. Individuals motivated by faith and altruism started many of the first colleges, hospitals, and charities in this country. Do we say that private hospitals, because they are privately financed and managed, produce only private benefits?

Caring for the sick and needy is a very public function that contributes to the health of a community. Likewise with the work of private colleges and charities. Such efforts generate a wealth of public benefits. Our government’s decision to assign a tax-exempt status to nonprofits is based on the notion that such efforts are beneficial to the public.

If a well-educated populace creates public benefits, as we are told, it matters not where the children were educated. Private schools create the same social benefits as traditional public schools. Because what happens in private schools is often just as public as what goes on in many public schools, it is wrong to think public education only happens in public schools.

If society should encourage education, why do we exclusively concern ourselves with only those who attend government schools, while ignoring the rest?

In a 2015 decision upholding the constitutionality of the Opportunity Scholarship Program, the North Carolina State Supreme Court ruled that uniformity clause applies exclusively to the public-school system and does not prohibit the General Assembly from developing and funding initiatives besides the public schools. Moreover, the court held that providing additional educational opportunities served a public purpose.

The preface of Article IX of the North Carolina Constitution reads: “Religion morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools, libraries and the means of education, shall forever be encouraged.”

School choice programs where a child attends private, home, or online schools are another means of education.

The school choice movement highlights two truths which opponents seem to overlook. First, just as every child is different, with different abilities, needs, and experiences, so too are schools. Schools come with different values, missions, leadership, curricula, cultures, students, and faculty. Shouldn’t parents be empowered to make the decision of which school is best for their child?

If one of our most important goals is to produce informed and educated citizens who contribute to our society and workforce, our only concern should be finding the best way of doing that. We shouldn’t care whether that involves a public or private school. When our policies recognize these realities, North Carolina will encourage education and that education will be truly public.

Bob Luebke

Bob Luebke is Director of Policy at the Civitas Institute, a conservative state-based think tank in based in Raleigh, North Carolina.