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School choice is now mainstream

When I first advocated the idea of parental choice in elementary and secondary education, it was considered by many to be a radical notion.

It shouldn’t have been. For decades, American students and their families have been free to choose among public and private colleges — even when they paid with government grants and loans. For decades, families have been able to spend government subsidies for child care and preschool at providers of their choice, including for-profit and religious institutions. Similarly, the creation of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965 didn’t compel retirees, the disabled, and poor Americans to get their health care only from government employees or hospitals. Patients remained free to choose.

What was truly odd, actually, was that so many policymakers in North Carolina and other states thought K-12 education ought to be entirely different, that it ought to consist overwhelming of district-run public schools delivering services to students assigned to them by central authorities.

Fortunately, this odd idea is rapidly disappearing from the public discourse. Nearly all states now have policies that encourage choice and competition in K-12 education. Some of these choice programs consist entirely of public school options, be they magnet schools, charter schools, or some kind of open-enrollment program that allows parents to rank nearby public schools in order of preference.

Increasingly, however, state legislatures are also enacting choice programs that encompass private alternatives. In fact, most states now have at least one of these: school vouchers, tuition tax credits or deductions, educational savings accounts, and tax credits that fund privately administered voucher programs. We’re not just talking about deep-red states here. Minnesota, Illinois, Maine, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and most recently Maryland are among those that have enacted private-school choice.

Here in North Carolina, a Democratic governor, Jim Hunt, and a split-control General Assembly authorized the creation of charter schools 20 years ago. Within the past three years, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and a GOP-led legislature (with some Democratic votes) have dramatically expanded the state’s choice offerings by removing artificial caps on charter-school expansion and creating two new voucher programs providing private-school scholarships for disabled and low-income students.

Roughly speaking, about a quarter of North Carolina’s K-12 students attend a school of choice. That includes private schools, home schools, charter schools, and open-enrollment public schools. As new charter schools come online and the state’s scholarship programs enroll growing numbers of disabled and low-income students, the share accounted for by schools of choice will continue to expand.

Does that mean district-run public schools are going to disappear? Hardly. They will educate the majority of North Carolina students for the foreseeable future. Choice and competition are indispensable tools for improving education in our state, but they aren’t the only tools required to do the job. State policymakers need to build on their past K-12 initiatives by setting high academic standards, administering valid and independent assessments, giving local districts more budgetary and managerial flexibility, training teachers and principals more effectively, and reforming teacher compensation so that we attract and retain excellent talent.

School choice has been a contentious issue for a long time. I’ve heard just about every argument one could make against the idea, and I’ve employed just about every argument one could make in favor of it. Over time, I would submit, the “ayes” have prevailed. The chances are now extremely remote that some future governor or legislature will shut down North Carolina’s charter schools or defund its scholarship programs and march all their students back into an assigned-school monopoly model for delivering education. It would be wrong. And it would be highly unpopular.

The notion of parents choosing the schools that best meet the needs of their children, from among a wide range of options, is no longer a radical one. Of course, it was always the privilege of wealthy families who could afford either to pay private-school tuition or to relocate to a desirable school-assignment zone. Now the mainstream view is that all families deserve a choice.

Editor’s Note: The John William Pope Foundation supports the work of EdNC.

John Hood

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, “Mountain Folk” and “Forest Folk,” combine epic fantasy with early American history.