John Locke Update / Research Brief

June Atkinson’s Cathedral Stands

posted on in Education, Education (PreK-12)
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Sincer her November defeat to upstart Mark Johnson, former Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson has been employing a sympathetic media establishment to voice her disappointment at the outcome of the election, reflect on the circumstances that led to her defeat, defend her record, and prophesy the downfall of North Carolina’s public schools.

Most recently, Atkinson joined the News and Observer’s Ned Barnett to bash North Carolina’s booming school choice movement.  Perhaps the most amusing charge is that the purpose of the school choice movement is “to make people lose confidence” in public schools.  Atkinson continued, “It takes decades to build a cathedral, but it takes a short time to destroy the cathedral.”  Perhaps it is worth asking whether we should be building “cathedrals” in the first place, particularly on the taxpayers’ dime.

Indeed, enrollment figures suggest that Atkinson’s worries about a school choice takeover are overblown.  The district school market share has dropped by only five percentage points between 2006 and 2016.  Today, around 83 percent of North Carolina’s school-age children are enrolled in a district school, down from 88 percent a decade ago.

While certain school choice sectors are booming and district school enrollment has slowed in comparison, the “cathedral” remains unharmed.

Between 2006 and 2016, North Carolina’s school-aged population grew by 12 percent or over 180,000 school-aged children.  District schools added nearly 69,000 students during this period, a five percent increase.  On the other hand, public charter school membership increased by 204 percent (+54,000 or so children) thanks to legislation that addressed robust parental demand by removing the 100-school cap and making greater allowances for enrollment growth at existing schools. Still, charter school membership represents only around five percent of district school membership.

At the same time, the estimated home school population rose by 84 percent (+54,000 or so children).  Interestingly, much of the growth in homeschooling has been organic.  Legislative changes to the definition of homeschooling, which made allowances for cooperative instruction, may have helped.  But easier access to instructional materials, higher quality online education, availability of cooperative enterprises, and the waning of long-held preconceptions about homeschooling surely played the biggest roles.

Overall enrollment growth in private schools has been modest.  Between 2006 and 2016, the private school population increased by just under 5,000 students, a five percent bump, amidst a recovery from enrollment declines during the Great Recession. Part of that increase may be due to the Opportunity Scholarship and Disability Grant programs, which direct state-funded scholarships to eligible low-income and special needs children whose families prefer that they attend private schools.  As funding increases and eligibility expands, so will the number of families who choose to send their children to participating private schools.  Indeed, liberals worry that the growing popularity of the Opportunity Scholarship and Disabilities Grant programs will attract more parents (and funding) from the district system and have dedicated considerable resources to attacking private schools who enroll voucher students.

Throughout Atkinson’s tenure as superintendent, tens of thousands of families turned to home, charter and private schools.  They have done so – not because of coercion, ignorance, bigotry, or a desire to undermine the “common good” – but out of an earnest desire to ensure that the educational, social, and physical needs of their children are addressed.  More importantly, they have done so largely without malice toward the district system or families who choose, or more likely are compelled, to patronize it.  Those of us who champion those choices feel the same way.

But I suppose it is easier to blame some shadowy school choice conspiracy for slow but steady the outmigration of children from district schools.  It’s much harder to take responsibility for helping to create the conditions that have allowed choice to thrive.  Perhaps as State Superintendent, Atkinson should have spent more time considering the factors leading to parental dissatisfaction and departure and addressed those, rather than simply bemoaning the existence of systems that have neither the resources nor infrastructure to genuinely compete with the district “cathedrals” she so vociferously defends.

As Vice President for Research, Terry oversees the research team’s writing and analysis across the spectrum of public policy issues. He specializes in pre-K-12 education. Before joining the Locke Foundation, he worked as the program assistant for the Child Welfare… ...

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