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Issues: School Choice

This week EducationNC is looking at some of the education issues that are important in the upcoming election. Today, we examine school choice.

North Carolina is a state with robust educational options for its students.

It all starts with its traditional public education system, serving more than 1.5 million students in 2,477 schools in 2016-17, according to the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI). 

Students also have the option of attending a public charter school, where, DPI says, about 89,000 students go to one of the state’s 167 charter schools in 2016-17. Up until 2011, the state had a cap on the number of charter schools the state could have — 100.

In addition to brick-and-mortar charter schools, the state has two virtual charter schools — separate and distinct from the state-run Virtual Public School — where students may enroll online, though there has been some controversy regarding seemingly high withdrawal rates at the institutions.

Of course, private schools have always been an option for North Carolina students as well. According to the North Carolina Division of Non-Public Education (NC DOA), 97,721 students attended 742 private schools in the state in the 2015-16 school year. And, thanks to the state’s opportunity scholarship program — often referred to as vouchers — certain students have the option of using state funds to help them attend one of the state’s private schools.

In June, the 2016-17 budget compromise allocated funds for 2,000 additional opportunity scholarships starting in 2017-18. It’s estimated that the program will serve 6,200 students in 2016-17. The budget also expands the program by $10 million each year for 11 years, topping out at an almost $145 million allocation in 2027-28 and each year after.

The program was challenged in court, a case that made its way all the way to the NC Supreme Court. But in 2015, the state’s highest court decided the program was constitutional.

Read more about the budget compromise here.

Finally, some parents choose to educate their students at home in home schools. Statistics from the Division of Non-Public Education show that 118,268 students attended 67,804 home schools in the state in the 2015-16 school year.

Looking at all these numbers, we can estimate that about 1.8 million students are educated in North Carolina, and of that, about 83 percent are educated in our traditional public schools.

The Election

Collectively, all of these educational options are referred to as school choice, and issue that has been an important one on the campaign trail.

As EducationNC, we have been following the three races that will have the biggest impact on education: Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Superintendent of Public Instruction.

In podcast interviews with the candidates in the Superintendent and Lieutenant Governor races, we were able to get some idea of where the candidates stand on the issue of school choice and how many students should be educated in traditional public schools versus other options. While the gubernatorial candidates did not accept our invitation to participate in podcast interviews, by analyzing what has been said by the two campaigns and candidates, we are able to get some idea as to where the two stand on the issue of choice as well.

Gubernatorial Race

Governor Pat McCrory
Governor Pat McCrory

While Governor Pat McCrory, the Republican candidate for governor, doesn’t have a specific section on his website related to “issues,” we can get some sense of his thinking by parsing other aspects of his website. For instance, in a section entitled “The Carolina Comeback,” McCrory’s campaign touts a variety of educational successes that the campaign says have happened under the governor’s watch.

One of those relates to opportunity scholarships: “Governor Pat signed ‘Opportunity Scholarships’ into law to expand educational opportunities for low-income students struggling to receive needed resources so they can receive up to $4,200 to attend a private school. Over $40 million of funding will provide new opportunities to thousands of students and families,” the website states.

And while McCrory has been touting the increase in teacher pay under the 2016-17 budget passed this summer, the increase in funding for opportunity scholarships as well as the plan to continue to increase funding for more than a decade were also in the budget McCrory signed in to law.

When it comes to charter schools, McCrory has also signaled his support for the system. On the Governor’s website (not his campaign site), he has a section where he talks about school choice. In there, the website celebrates the following about charter schools:

“The number of charter schools and students enrolled in charter schools has increased by nearly 50% since 2012.”

And in the most recent General Assembly session, he signed legislation that would put five of the state’s lowest performing schools into an “Achievement School District,” where the schools could be taken over by for-profit charter management organizations.

In a January article on entitled Strengthening NC’s Education System & Expanding Opportunity Through School Choice, McCrory is more explicit about his thoughts on the subject.

“I believe parents should be able to choose a school that best meets the educational needs of their own kids. It’s as simple as that,” he begins.

“And contrary to what the union bosses and some in the educational establishment want us to believe, expanding school choice will only help to strengthen the state’s education system as a whole, not undermine it.”

He goes on to talk about the progress the state has made in expanding educational choice over the past few years, including his signing of the legislation that made opportunity scholarships a reality.

“The opportunity scholarship program is important not just because it serves as a model for the nation, but because it is rooted in our core belief as North Carolinians that every child — regardless of zip code, background or economic status — should have the opportunity to receive the best education available,” he writes.

In the article, McCrory also gives his views on charter schools, noting an “explosion of interest” since the cap was lifted in 2011.

“Opponents argue that charter schools divert resources away from traditional public schools, and thus, reduce the opportunity for every child to get a good education. I disagree. The expansion of charter schools is helping to create a healthy competition among all schools and serves as a great laboratory of educational innovation for teachers, administrators and policy makers alike,” he wrote.

In a recent News & Observer article, McCrory expands on his thoughts about charter schools, saying: “I supported lifting the cap on charter schools, but we must ensure charter schools meet the highest academic and transparency standards.”

He went on to reiterate what he said in the January article about charter schools’ ability to innovate and promote competition, before touting one of his recent contributions to the growth of charters in North Carolina.

“While demanding transparency and high standards, we should and are learning from their successes and failures, and support the ideas that work. That’s why I recently signed legislation providing a fast-track review process for successful charter schools to be replicated in communities across the state – it’s just common sense.”

Attorney General Roy Cooper (Photo Courtesy: Roy Cooper's Facebook Page)
Attorney General Roy Cooper (Photo Courtesy: Roy Cooper’s Facebook Page)

On his website, Attorney General Roy Cooper, the Democratic candidate for governor, said that charter schools have a role to play in North Carolina. But he also has some criticism. He says that charter schools have flexibility to allow them to innovate. And he admits that some good charter schools have been able to make gains in students’ education. But he laments the fact that whatever lessons are being learned in charter schools, the state has no requirement to share those lessons with traditional public schools. His website goes on:

“And unsuccessful charters are going undetected for too long due to limited oversight and accountability. Because charters are publicly funded, we must ensure they are held to the same accountability and transparency standards that we hold traditional public schools.”

While his website has no stance on private schools per se, Cooper does have a clear position on opportunity scholarships. On his website, he states:

“I do not believe public dollars should go to private schools.”

Cooper expands on his thoughts in a recent News & Observer article. 

“I oppose private school vouchers, but carefully selected public charter schools can bring innovations. But charter schools should not be the only educational institutions encouraged to experiment with educational innovations. Traditional schools should be encouraged to innovate, too. I will promote a statewide education policy that encourages creativity in the classroom, with personalized education plans, flipped classrooms and student governance, among others. We need to find new ways to evaluate student performance that improves outcomes and boosts performance.”

Lieutenant Governor

EducationNC was able to get much more direct answers as to where the candidates stand on the issue of school choice. In two podcasts, we talked directly with Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, the Republican candidate, and his opponent Linda Coleman.

Specifically, we asked the candidates what percentage of students should be taught in traditional public schools. The difference between the two couldn’t be more stark.

Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest
Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest

Forest said in his podcast interview that the issue should be left up to parental choice.

“I think our goal, my goal, is to say: Do we have enough opportunities out there so that students that are in schools or school districts that aren’t doing so well, those parents really have an opportunity and an option to send them somewhere else?”

He also said that school choice was essential to parents who have children with special needs.

“We found out by surveys, that’s why a lot of people chose the virtual charter pilot program because of certain special needs their children may have.”

And he said the government shouldn’t be able to dictate where parents send their kids.

Linda Coleman (Photo Courtesy: Coleman's Facebook page)
Linda Coleman (Photo Courtesy: Coleman’s Facebook page)

Linda Coleman, in her podcast, had a much more extreme percentage in mind:

“I think the greatest percentage: I think really probably 99 percent.”

She went on to say that it’s hard to really pin down what the percentage should be. Parents should be able to send their kids to private schools, “religious schools,” or home school. But if that was the parents’ choice, they shouldn’t rely on the state government to support them financially, she said.

“I do not think we should pay for those schools with tax dollars. I think that in order to ensure that we are following our constitution, that we need to be putting our dollars in the public school system.”

She went on to talk about what she says are four public school systems in North Carolina: traditional public schools, the opportunity scholarship program, charter schools, and the Achievement School District. Of the Achievement School District she said “(it) really take us to privatization of public education because there is no accountability to the Department of Public Instruction who is in charge of curriculum and seeing that the policies set for school districts throughout North Carolina are followed.”

She went on to criticize the Achievement School District further, calling out Lieutenant Governor Forest specifically.

“These schools are run by an operator who could be from out of state or who has run a charter school. But the current Lieutenant Governor has them set up in such a way that he is the one who would hire the operator as well as the superintendent of these schools. I think that it is a bad idea. These schools were a failure in Tennessee. They are not faring well in Michigan, New York, and Louisiana. Why would we bring a policy or test program to North Carolina that has been a failure in other states?”

She went on to call the Achievement School District a “waste of resources,” and said it will take money away from traditional public schools.

“The role of government is to serve the greater good not just a select few. And with education, we are seemingly going to the select few where people are wanting their kids in a private school setting of some sort. But that’s not the greater good and that’s not government’s role. So taxpayers should not be funding those.”

Coleman also talked about her time in the General Assembly, when the number of charter schools in the state was capped at 100. She said that, with their flexibility, charter schools were supposed to be laboratories for “best practices,” that could then be used in traditional public schools.

“Now we’re just siphoning off money from the traditional public schools…and education in North Carolina is suffering, and if it continues, our future will suffer.”

We also asked the candidates about accountability when it comes to all the various educational option in North Carolina.

Forest said he didn’t think private schools need an accountability system. He said the parents are the accountability system, and since they are both paying taxes — which go to fund a public education system they don’t use — and paying tuition for the private schools, they’re more likely to hold the schools accountable.

He went on to talk about the accountability he sees in charter schools.

“Charter schools have accountability. They’re public schools. As I tell people, what happens to a failing charter school? We shut it down. What happens to a failing traditional public school? We just throw more money at it. So I think there are accountability measures there.”

Coleman said she didn’t think the state had the right accountability in place for any of its schooling options.

“If it is the state’s role to educate every child, you’ve got to have some expectations there. And people will generally break their necks if they understand what is expected of them. But if there are no expectations, except you go in this direction and if you happen to come out fine that’s OK, but there’s no measurement across the board that we can look to say they’re meeting these metrics, they’re meeting this metric and this metric. So therefore you have all of these schools running the gambit in terms of performance.”

Superintendent of Public Instruction

We also had the opportunity to do podcasts with Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson, the Democratic candidate for the office, and her opponent Mark Johnson.

Superintendent June Atkinson
Superintendent June Atkinson

Atkinson said in her podcast that between 85 and 87 percent of the state’s students should be taught in traditional public schools, but that she has no problem with parents choosing any school choice option for their children. But the role of the traditional public school is vital, she said.

“I believe that our public schools are places where we can help develop character and build on what parents are doing at home. I believe public schools are the places where you learn to work with people who are different from you. And I believe that public schools are the best choice for our parents throughout North Carolina.

Johnson, on the other hand, said in his podcast that there is no “right” percentage of students that should be in traditional public schools.

Mark Johnson (Photo Courtesy: Mark Johnson's Facebook page)
Mark Johnson (Photo Courtesy: Mark Johnson’s Facebook page)

“This is a topic that I run into a lot with teachers who fervently are against charter schools. We all need to be reminded that most of our students are still in traditional public schools and will continue to be in traditional public schools. And we have to figure this out for traditional public schools, which is why I’m running for the Department of Public Instruction, because I believe in traditional public schools. I believe there are a lot of problems in traditional public schools that, with the right leadership, we can tackle.”

We also asked the candidates about the accountability systems in place for the various school options in North Carolina.

Atkinson said that both charter schools and traditional public schools are judged under the same A-F grading system. Home schools are required to give some type of test under North Carolina law, but no particular test is specified.

“It has been the practice of North Carolina’s General Assembly to give total flexibility to home schools and private schools. That’s unlike other states, such as Indiana. In Indiana home schools and private schools have the same type of accountability as the public schools. I don’t believe that North Carolina is ready for that degree of accountability as Indiana now has.”

On charter and traditional public schools, Johnson said that if a charter school is failing, it should be closed.

“No underperforming school should continue without having to take steps to improve itself, or to be closed. We have a lot of great charter schools. We have a lot of great traditional public schools. We need to continue to promote those. If a public school is not working or if a charter school is not working, we need to say what support do you need? How do we help you do better? We can give that support, and if there’s still not results, we need to take more firm actions.”

When it comes to private and home schools, Johnson said we have the right accountability measures in place.

“We can always continue to improve, but that’s an ongoing discussion, and clearly it’s not one that is going to go away.”

Read more about the candidates here.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.