Superintendents, principals, and teachers were invited recently to the General Assembly to share their ideas about improving and protecting public education in North Carolina. Brunswick County Superintendent Ed Pruden spoke boldly against the threat of privatization: “We cannot allow our school system to be perverted into an instrument of re-segregation or privatized for the enrichment of educational entrepreneurs.”
What are Superintendent Pruden and other education leaders worried about? Why should North Carolinians be paying attention?
According to the News and Observer, “there will be bills on providing tax money to help public school students pay tuition to attend private schools.” (Feb. 25, 2013) These tax credits or vouchers would take your tax dollars away from North Carolina’s public schools and give funding to private and religious schools. For a state that now ranks 47th in per pupil funding and 48th in teacher salaries, this shift of taxpayer money from public to private benefit is cause for alarm.
As Superintendent Pruden stated, “Unanimously, North Carolina’s superintendents consider tax credits or vouchers to be the single greatest threat to public schools.”
School vouchers foster a dual or two-tier school system that puts underfunded public schools at a disadvantage. It’s a myth that vouchers give choice equally to all families.
Low-income families may still be unable to afford the cost of private school tuition, even with the “discount” provided through a voucher or tax credit, and may not have the flexibility to carpool. Vouchers incentivize families to abandon the public schools, leaving behind the most disadvantaged students for the public schools to educate. What’s touted as an instrument of opportunity actually becomes an instrument of socio-economic segregation.
Furthermore, vouchers do not improve student outcomes. Where vouchers have been tried, they have not shown any appreciable academic benefit. More than twenty years of research indicates that students who leave traditional public schools for private schools do not fare better academically.
North Carolina’s taxpayers must question why they are being asked to fund two school systems, especially when our public schools are already underfunded. And they should question the lack of accountability in sending their hard-earned tax dollars to private and religious schools. Legally, traditional public schools must accept all children regardless of family income, disability, language proficiency, or academic standing.
Private schools do not share these obligations. They are free to place restrictions on student enrollment, turning away children if they choose. They operate outside of public accountability, including financial accountability, teacher qualifications, and curriculum. North Carolinians should be alarmed that their hard-earned tax dollars could be diverted to the private sector with no oversight.
Public education is the constitutional right of every child in North Carolina. Our legislature is obligated to fund our public schools to protect that right, and North Carolinians should ensure that elected officials make good on that constitutional obligation. Constitutional mandate aside, funding our public schools adequately makes great business sense.
Investment in public education has been the foundation of our economic growth and continues to bring jobs and energetic young families to North Carolina.
North Carolina’s public schools are one of our state’s greatest success stories. Over the decades, state leaders have stood by the vision of public education as a public good-something that everyone in the community benefits from, not merely individual students. This vision has set North Carolina on a path to prosperity and has distinguished us from other states. The quality of our jobs, variety of our cultural opportunities, vitality of our neighborhoods and institutions all benefit – directly and indirectly – from public education.
Public schools provide an excellent education for more than 90% of North Carolina’s children – nearly 1.5 million students. Our graduation rate is currently at an all-time high and our dropout rate is at an all-time low. North Carolina’s public schools are also innovating, offering students rigorous preparation for college and careers. Most districts offer families choices like Early College High Schools, magnet schools and strong neighborhood schools to meet the unique interests and needs of students. Despite school funding near the bottom, North Carolina is making tremendous strides in our schools. Why would our legislators want to take steps to undermine our progress and set our state back?
Instead of asking leaders like Superintendent Pruden to craft a voucher plan which most North Carolinians fundamentally oppose, why not ask him and other education experts to create a visionary plan that drives further improvement in our public schools? Let’s invest in all of our children and keep moving North Carolina forward.
Karey Harwood and Patty Williams are with Public Schools First NC.