by Dr. Terry Stoops
Former Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
I’m not surprised that the editors of the News & Observer blame the N.C. General Assembly for the migration of students from districts to charter, home, and private schools. In a recent editorial, they claim, “What’s happening in North Carolina is that a concerted effort by the Republican-controlled General Assembly is starving public schools of resources and encouraging the expansion of educational options that lack standards and oversight.” Educational options do not “lack standards and oversight” when parents assume the responsibility of choosing a school for their children. And more than ever are doing so.
The latest state data show that around 80 percent of school-age children in North Carolina attend a district, regional, or Innovative School District school, 8 percent attend homeschools, and charter and private schools each enroll around 6 percent. While charter, private, and home school enrollment continues to increase, district enrollment has decreased slightly over the last few years.
Dismissing the simple explanation that parents like school choice and want more of it, the N&O speculates that those crafty evil genius Republicans “encourage the expansion of school choice by making traditional public schools less effective and less attractive.” It’s a preposterous claim. While Republican lawmakers have expanded educational options, they have also spearheaded initiatives to reduce class sizes, improve reading in the early grades, and boost principal pay. Public school expenditures have increased by around $1,000 per student between 2010 and 2018, while average teacher pay is nearly $9,000 higher today than it was in 2014.
Interestingly, during the years of Democratic rule, which presumably made public schools more effective and more attractive, charter, private, and home school enrollment increased significantly. For example, during the halcyon days of 2000 and 2010, homeschool enrollment nearly tripled. Charters nearly quadrupled their enrollment, despite a 100-school cap and restrictive enrollment growth allowances. Private school enrollment increased by a relatively modest but steady 10 percent.
Moreover, the notion that lawmakers are “starving” districts of resources to benefit charters is nonsense. If the General Assembly chose to starve public schools of resources, then charters would be collateral damage. Public charter school funding is not a separate line item in the state budget. Rather, charters and districts receive funding from a shared pool of state appropriations, and it is distributed based on the number and characteristics of students they enroll. The N.C. Department of Public Instruction determines how much charters receive based on the dollars per student of the school district in which the charter school is located (unless it is a new charter school). Simply put, if lawmakers starved districts, then they would have starved charters too.
Moreover, when parents choose to enroll their children in charter schools, only a portion of the state, local, and federal funds that districts would have received follow the child. That is because charters receive no state or local government funding for capital expenditures. School districts are the beneficiaries of tax and lottery revenues that help them to address their school facility needs. In addition, county commissions support districts by paying school capital debt on their behalf. Charter schools must use operating funds for capital expenditures and debt, thereby reducing the amount of money that they have available for instructional programs and supplies. Nevertheless, parents are willing (and often waiting) to send their children to charter schools that typically have fewer resources than their assigned district school.
The same is true for parents who send their children to private and home schools. The typical church-based, non-residential private school spends thousands less per student than their neighboring district school. Homeschools, of course, spend considerably less than any other form of schooling. Parents who choose private and home schools also make a substantial financial commitment, either in the form of tuition payments or forgone income, to enable their children to attend schools that News & Observer editors would call “starved” for resources.
Of course, the General Assembly cannot compel families to select charter, private, or home schools, regardless of how much they “promote” them. The legislature simply ensures that options are available for families who are dissatisfied with their school district. And there are plenty of reasons why families may pursue alternatives that have nothing to do with the policy initiatives approved by the legislature. These include the parent who pursues educational options for a child that has endured bullying or low expectations at their assigned school.
The editors of the News & Observer conclude, “If North Carolina is going to foster school choice, it should first ensure that choosing a traditional public school anywhere in the state is an excellent choice.” But with a few exceptions, traditional public schools are the antithesis of choice, mandating that students attend an assigned school based on where they live rather than what they need.