by Dr. Robert Luebke
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
The movement to privatize education is decimating our traditional public schools. Vital resources have been siphoned from already cash-strapped public schools and reallocated to charter schools and to private schools via school vouchers. … Privatization of public schools refers to efforts by policymakers to shift public education funds and students into the private sector. It is an attempt to contract with private, for-profit entities for various responsibilities, like education, that have long been the responsibility of the public sector. Many think of privatization as the “corporate takeover” of the public schools because well-funded corporations and business leaders are driving this four-decade long coordinated effort that is altering how America’s children are educated.
— From the Public Schools First NC web site
“[T]he privatization movement — charters and vouchers — is moving forward full speed ahead, defunding public schools, using test scores to say public schools aren’t good enough. The question is how can we stop this steamroller that’s destroying the public sector, that wants to privatize everything, that wants to turn us from citizens to consumers.”
— Diane Ravitch, in a video posted by the Network for Public Education.
Those statements describe the narratives progressives and other opponents of educational freedom use to blunt the growth of school choice in North Carolina. The demonization of school choice has come via a steady drumbeat of negative stories. Critics of so-called privatization warn that as public dollars get transferred to private schools, the elimination of public schools is at hand. For school choice critics, the link between school choice expansion and the decline of public-school funding is direct and demonstrable.
If privatization were a real and a growing threat, the evidence would be in the numbers. Public school enrollments and budgets would have a pattern of steady decline, while choice programs such as private school enrollments and budgets would be on the rise.
Let’s look at the numbers over the past decade. Certainly, two datapoints don’t constitute a trend, but they reflect the trends (enrollment and budget) contained in the years between the points. Therefore, they are useful for our purposes.
Chart I provides a general description of changes in K-12 enrollment in several education options in North Carolina for 2011 and 2021. What do the numbers show? Do we see a public system in decline and growing private schools enriched by public dollars? Let’s look at the numbers.
|Type of School||2011 Enrollment||Percent of Total Enrollment||2021 Enrollment||Percent of Total Enrollment||Change, 2011–21|
|Traditional Public Schools||1,409,895||86.44%||1,344,963||76.43%||-64,932|
Source: North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, North Carolina Office of Non-Public Education
Several items are immediately noticeable. Over the past ten years, the percentage of students enrolled in traditional public schools has declined significantly. In 2011, 86% of all students attended traditional public schools. By 2021, the percentage had declined to 76%.
Meanwhile, over the same period, the percentage of students attending charter, private, and home schools increased dramatically. In 2011 charter, private and home schools enrolled about 14% of all students. By 2021, that percentage had risen to 23%. Also noteworthy is that over the past decade, North Carolina has added thousands of new students. Collectively, charter, private, and home schools gained about 194,000 new students, while traditional public schools lost about 65,000 students. Thus, over the past decade, the total number of K-12 students in the state increased by about 129,000.
These numbers are problematic for choice critics. A privatization argument certainly implies students leave the public schools for private schools. But are they? We don’t have hard data on where students who left the public schools eventually enrolled. However, some of the overall numbers are telling. Over the past decade charter school added over 86,000 students while home schools added another 96,000 students. Meanwhile private schools added just over 11,000 students during the same period. Those numbers suggest that even if every one of the new private school students came from public schools, 54,000 students — or about 83% of the students who left the public schools — would be enrolled in other than private schools. These realities don’t drive the privatization argument.
Chart II provides inflation-adjusted financial data for traditional public schools and charter schools for the past decade. School choice critics say privatization has adversely impacted public schools, shrunk enrollments and led to declining resources. The chart makes clear that over the past decade, public school enrollment did decline.
Nevertheless, over the decade state per-pupil spending for traditional public school students rose by 16.7% while total aid increased by 2.6%, after adjusting for inflation. In short, the slight decline in enrollment in traditional public schools helped aid a healthy increase in per-pupil spending. ADM enrollment has been declining in North Carolina public schools since 2016.
The other relevant fact is that total state appropriations for K-12 public education have increased every year since 2010-11.
|Traditional Public Schools||2011||2021||Change, 2011–21|
|State Per-Pupil Funding||$6,127||$7,156||16.70%|
|Total Per-Pupil Funding||$9,987||$10,753||7.60%|
|Number of Schools||2,425||2,456||31|
|Charter Schools||2011||2021||Change, 2011–21|
|State Per-Pupil Funding||$5,747||$5,839||1.60%|
|Total Per-Pupil Funding||$9,105||$8,899||-2.20%|
|Number of Schools||99||200||101|
Source: North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, author’s calculations
What do we learn?
The bottom half of Chart II provides information on charter schools. The numbers show charter school enrollment expanded by 209% over the period. State per-pupil funding for charter schools rose slowly during the period by only 1.6%, while total per-pupil funding for charter schools actually declined slightly (down 2.2%) over the decade.
The decline in total per-pupil support for charter schools is somewhat of a mystery. It may be tied to declines in local support for charters These developments are mentioned because charter schools have been a destination for many students who chose to opt out of traditional public schools in the last decade. They are also noteworthy because charter schools are public schools — supported by taxpayer dollars and governed by many of the same rules. Their steady growth over the past decade makes it difficult to accept the assertion that school choice is leading to the demise of public education. It’s better to conceive of the changes as a reinvention.
Finally let’s look at private schools and home schools. Chart III details enrollment information for private schools and home schools in North Carolina for the years 2011 and 2021.
|Private Schools||2011||2021||Change 2011-2021|
|Number of Schools||693||783||90|
|Number of Students in Private School Choice Programs||0||17,992||17,992|
|Public Dollars for Private Choice Programs||0||$75,146,403||$75,146,403|
|Choice Program Funding Per Recipient||0||$4,176||$4,176|
|Choice Program Per-Pupil Funding||0||$700||$700|
|Home Schools||2011||2021||Change 2011-2021|
|Number of Schools||45,524||112,614||67,090|
Source: Office of Non-Public Education and NC State Education Assistance Authority
Over the decade, 90 new private schools were created, which also helped to boost private school enrollment about 12% over the decade. Also in 2021, about $75 million in state funds were distributed via three private school choice programs, the Opportunity Scholarship Program, Disabilities Scholarship Grant, and Personal Education Savings Account Program. Combined, the three choice programs received almost $75 million in state dollars and enrolled a little under 18,000 students (17,992). If state dollars were divided equally among recipients, each recipient would receive $4,176. These numbers reflect that the growth in private schools is real, but when compared to gains in charter school and home school enrollment, they’re relatively modest.
Critics of school choice have set off alarms, saying state aid to private schools and charters privatizes education, enriches private schools, decimates public schools, and changes how we educate children. A review of general enrollment and financial trendlines reveals little support for such claims. While the public schools did lose about 65,000 students over the past decade, state and total per-pupil support improved slightly over the decade.
Where are these students enrolling? Choice programs did help to increase enrollment in private schools by over 11,000 students. Although the data are not yet available, the numbers suggest public school students likely enrolled in charter schools — which are another form of public schools — or home schools.
The assertions about increases in private school enrollment and the losses of financial support for the public schools are not supported by the numbers. Simply stated, school choice is not leading to declining public-school enrollments and budgets. Public dollars are not privatizing public education, nor enriching private schools.
Critics like Ravitch and Public Schools First NC also say privatization is decimating our schools, changing how we educate students, and eroding the common school ideal that helped to teach generations of students about our democratic ideals. We will review those claims in Part 2 of this series.