School choice week is upon us once again. Groups of lawmakers, advocates, and school leaders will praise General Assembly leadership for dramatically expanding school choice over the past decade. They will thank legislative leaders for increasing the number of charter schools and creating voucher programs that now give families earning over $100,000 per year over $5,500 for private school tuition.
Their praise will focus on the increasing number of students receiving vouchers and attending charter schools. They will celebrate the fact that the number of students in traditional, inclusive public schools has fallen since 2016, while the number of students attending charter schools or receiving vouchers has shot up. Over this period, traditional public school enrollment has fallen by 62,579 students, while charter enrollments have increased by 73,694. An additional 23,200 students are receiving vouchers since 2016.
While these enrollment changes will be lauded, astute observers will notice something important: little attention, if any, will be given to how these students are faring in their nontraditional school settings. That’s no accident, as traditional, inclusive public schools continue to outperform charter and voucher schools.
North Carolina’s traditional inclusive public schools are doing better than schools in the charter sector when it comes to bouncing back from the effects of the pandemic. This is the continuation of a trend. Traditional public schools in North Carolina continue to provide larger annual academic gains for their students than charter schools. In the most recent year, 71 percent of traditional public schools met or exceeded growth expectations, compared to just 63 percent of charter schools.
No such comparisons exist between traditional public school students and voucher students. This is by design. Legislative leaders have rejected efforts to examine whether voucher students are better off academically after leaving the traditional, inclusive public school system. Most likely, they don’t want to know just how bad it is.
In other states, evaluations of statewide voucher programs similar to North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship program have revealed disastrous results on student test scores. In Ohio and Louisiana, the negative impact of accepting a voucher to attend private school surpassed the negative impacts of both Hurricane Katrina and the COVID-19 pandemic. These voucher programs are having disastrously large, negative impacts on students.
It’s unclear why choice advocates will celebrate this shift in students out of the traditional, inclusive public schools into less effective charter and voucher settings. An expansion of slots in underperforming charter schools and subpar voucher schools does nothing to expand choice in meaningful ways. For choice to be useful, it has to offer high-quality options, not the least-bad option. If North Carolina families are choosing between schools, they deserve to be choosing from safe, well-resourced, and inspiring options.
Unfortunately, the advocates who will be most vocal this week will spend little time discussion how to create high-quality options. They just want more options, quality be damned. Observers will note, their agendas are absent calls for higher standards for charter or voucher schools. They aren’t calling for increased accountability or the shuttering of failing schools.
They also won’t be calling for greater investments in traditional public schools. This is where things get intriguing. After all, our traditional, inclusive public schools are a leading supplier of school choice. Traditional school systems offer families choice-based school assignment policies and magnet schools offering innovative curricula and themes. Well-resourced public schools also offer choice within their walls by offering students access to advanced coursework, elective courses, career and technical training, foreign languages, art classes, band, and chorus. Such schools offer choices of after-school school programs such as athletics, drama, and robotics that make school enjoyable while preparing youth for life as an adult.
If school choice advocates were dedicated to providing North Carolina families with real, meaningful educational choice, they would be using School Choice Week to generate support for the Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan. The Leandro Plan, a product of the state’s decades-long Leandro court case, provides state lawmakers a detailed roadmap of the investments, policy changes, and new programs necessary to provide all students with schools meeting the quality standards guaranteed under our state constitution. If implemented, it will dramatically expand school choice.
With adequate and equitable funding of our schools, more families will be able to choose between many schools that can meet their children’s needs. There will be fewer families settling for the least-bad option, and more children thriving in schools that fully support their unique needs.
And that includes charter schools and vouchers. Under the Leandro Plan, charter schools would see their state funding increase by nearly 50 percent. And because the maximum size of school vouchers is tied to state spending on public schools, voucher families would also see their options increase under the Leandro Plan.
So why won’t school choice advocates support a constitutionally-mandated, research-based plan that significantly and meaningfully expands school choice? That’s a question that School Choice Week organizers should be asked this week.
Absent an answer, we’re left with speculation. Are they unwilling to support the Leandro Plan because stronger public schools will cut into the profits of private school and charter school operators? Or is it because choice advocates are simply ideologically opposed to institutions that are democratic and foster the collective good?
I don’t know the answer to those questions. But the loudest voices at School Choice Week should clarify whether it’s school choice that they love, or simply the privatization of schools.