Private obsession: throwing public money over a wall

When the N.C. Supreme Court gave the state the green light to use public money to help students pay for private schooling, it not only redefined the concept of “public” but it also diminished the role of the public – both the taxpaying public and elected public officials – in what is undoubtedly some of the most important work the state does.

Of course, Republicans who pushed vouchers through the General Assembly – and probably, if pressed, the four Republican justices who prevailed in Thursday’s 4-3 decision – would disagree. But how can it be otherwise? Their voucher program funnels money to schools the state’s toughest accountability programs can’t touch and that the general public has no hope of influencing.

(Here are the Court’s majority and minority opinions

The great mystery here is why legislators who delight in micromanaging public education would turn over millions in taxpayer dollars to private schools that are not held by the state to public-school standards for academic performance or teacher hiring and that are free to be selective in their admissions policies.

Or maybe it’s no mystery at all. Scratch the surface of legislators’ stated concerns for the quality of education or the Court’s view of our constitutionally guaranteed right to a sound, basic education and you’ll find a strong ideological streak. Even if you don’t think legislative leaders are intent on dismantling the public school system, you have to concede that budget and personnel cuts, the devaluing of experienced teachers and gimmicks like letter grades for schools don’t look so supportive. (Before you say “teacher pay raises” consider that legislators had to be tired of seeing “46th in the nation” beside North Carolina’s name. It’s bad for business, and it was an election year.)

The truth is some legislators think there’s a better way than the way that’s served North Carolina for more than a century, and that way requires more school choice, as in the so-called Opportunity Scholarship Program. It seems to us there’s no shortage of choices already – homeschooling, online academies, 127 charter schools – but legislators of this mindset don’t feel the party is complete without opening it up to private schools. You just have to ignore the contradiction inherent in giving money raised through a public tax levy to schools whose reputation depends largely on their exclusivity, particularly those with religious affiliations.

As disappointed as we are by the Court’s ruling, our problem isn’t with school choice. We accept the right of parents to choose where their children go to school and are confident the variety of academic and athletic programs we offer and the student support we provide make LCPS the best choice for Lenoir County. It’s right there in our vision statement: “Lenoir County Public Schools aspires to be the school system of choice …,” not the school system of force.

However, the kind of school choice enabled by a voucher program helps the few at the expense of the many. It’s difficult to say how much vouchers will cost public school districts, but it will cost all of them something and will cost them more in the near future than it does now. Each district’s allocation of state funds, which in Lenoir County amounts to about 60 percent of our budget, is based almost exclusively on enrollment. Vouchers may not entice more than a handful of Lenoir County students away from public schools, but each one that leaves will affect the amount of money available to educate LCPS students, now more than 93 percent of the county’s school-age youth.

The state awarded 1,216 scholarships through the voucher program last year. It has already awarded 2,642 for the coming school year and could add another 1,700 before school starts. Compared to the 1.4 million students in North Carolina’s public schools, or even the 58,000 enrolled in charter schools, the defection of 4,200 to private schools might not seem significant. But it is significant for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, it’s just the beginning. Legislators didn’t plant this seed not to see it grow. They would like to ease eligibility requirements to allow more families to apply and to quadruple funding for the program, from this year’s $10.8 million to $40 million or more.

For another thing – the main thing – vouchers show the willingness of key lawmakers to outsource what has been and should remain a primary responsibility of state government. Private schools have a place in the panorama of education, but they have a wall around them for a reason. Blindly throwing money over the wall won’t change that, and it won’t help North Carolina better realize the idea of universal education at the heart of public schools.