This week should not pass without acknowledging that it is “National School Choice Week.” This is the week described by its proponents as a way to shine a “positive spotlight on the need for effective education options for all children.” By this, these folks usually mean charter schools and vouchers.
The truth, however, is that evidence shows that these are not effective options at all. Nationally, the majority of charters either perform about the same as or worse than traditional public schools. The news is no better with vouchers. In places that have had vouchers the longest, public school students actually outperform students who receive private school vouchers on proficiency exams.
Even more fascinating than the illusion of choice that is being celebrated is the fact that there are people without choices when it comes to public education. The North Carolina General Assembly is constitutionally mandated, meaning they have no choice but to support the traditional public schools.
Article I, Section 15 of the North Carolina Constitution states that “the people have the right to the privilege of education, and it is the duty of the State to guard and maintain that right.” If that provision is not strong enough, the drafters of the constitution also state in Article IX, Section 2 that “[t]he General Assembly shall provide by taxation or otherwise for a general and uniform system of free public schools…” Clearly, our legislature is given the directive to provide funding to have a uniform system of public schools. In fact, taxation is included in the section in case the General Assembly needed to find a revenue source. The edict is obvious; fund public education.
Unfortunately, this General Assembly has chosen to fund private schools through vouchers called “Opportunity Scholarships.” The North Carolina Justice Center and the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) filed a lawsuit partly based on another constitutional provision. Article IX, Section 6 requires that all money for public education should be faithfully appropriated and used exclusively for “establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools.”
All of this means that the legislature cannot drain money from public education to provide vouchers to unaccountable private schools. They do not have that choice.
Those who support vouchers, including members of the General Assembly, use the refrain that public schools are “failing” and that, therefore, parents need choices. The truth is that if legislators lived up to their constitutional responsibilities, they would not present this illusory promise to desperate parents, but rather would ensure that schools were adequately and equitably funded for each student in North Carolina.
The solution is not unaccountable charter schools or the privatization of public education through vouchers. The answer is funding best practices like alternative assessments, extended learning time, professionalizing the teaching profession and interventions for at-risk students like Personal Education Plans. The aforementioned ideas require money — money that should not be deposited in what amount to unconstitutional and unaccountable education black holes.
As some celebrate National School Choice Week, we should continue to remind this General Assembly that they do not have the freedom to spend public money on unproven methods of education. When it comes to providing genuine (rather than illusory) opportunity to the state’s children, they do not have a choice.