Education reform in North Carolina has a long history, but has shown mixed results at best. Despite recent improvements in some test scores, the state’s public schools still deliver poor-quality services at excessive cost to large segments of the student population. Under the state’s new ABC plan, nearly half of all public schools in 1996-97 failed to provide a year’s worth of educational progress for a year’s schooling. Only 26 percent of N.C. 4th-graders are proficient in reading and 21 percent are proficient in math.
For minority students, the situation can properly be called an emergency. Proficiency rates in core subjects are in single digits. About two-thirds of blacks and Hispanics lack even basic skills in reading and math. And nearly half of black and Indian 10th-graders failed to pass the state’s new 8th-grade level competency test.
Reform efforts over the years have largely avoided the fundamental changes in incentives that will be necessary for schools to improve. Over the past decade, per-pupil spending grew more than twice the rate of inflation, much of it to hire new teachers and pay them more. But there is no merit pay for individual teachers, no real way for principals to hire and retain the workforce they wish, and little competitive pressure placed on the public school monopoly to provide effective education.
The few glimmers of progress in public education, such as the advent of the ABC plan and the creation of a limited number of charter schools, have occurred because of the education establishment’s fear of tuition tax credits or vouchers. The “Reach for the STARS” plans builds on this model by providing a five-step plan for increasing competition, local control, and parent empowerment. The plan is as follows:
1. Raise academic Standards.
2. Use pay hikes to end teacher Tenure.
3. Create tax credits for educational savings Accounts.
4. Promote local control and reduce destructive state Regulation.
5. In schools deemed low-performing by state ABC tests, give pupils Scholarships.
North Carolina should set a goal of at least half of students demonstrating proficiency in core subjects on national tests, with at least 90 percent testing at the “basic” level. All teachers in Low-Performing Schools should be required to take a 12th-grade competency test. Additional pay raises contained in the Excellent Schools Act should be given only in exchange for phasing out tenure. All North Carolina families should be given tax deductions and credits for deposits into educational savings, from which they can pay tuition and expenses at private schools, colleges and universities. The statewide cap of 100 on charter schools should be lifted, and school systems be given more flexibility in spending state dollars. Finally, students in the worst-performing schools in the state should be given scholarships to attend any private school of their choice.
In a 1997 Locke Foundation poll, strong majorities of North Carolinians favored tuition tax relief and private school scholarships. Mail surveys of N.C. business executives and county commissioners also found strong support for parental choice.