RALEIGH – If someone asked me to describe the single-biggest result of conservative electoral gains in 2009 and 2010, my answer would consist of two words: school choice.
Now, I admit that that the most significant legislative achievement of the new General Assembly was the passage of a 2011-13 budget without imposing or extending any tax hikes. It was a bipartisan vote, overriding Gov. Bev Perdue’s veto, that will save North Carolina taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year and create thousands of new jobs.
But the budget, prudent as it proved to be as a first step towards fiscal sanity, did not fundamentally alter public policy in North Carolina. State government will continue to do virtually everything it used to do, albeit more efficiently.
The Left has alleged otherwise – that education and health care and environmental protection will be decimated – but the Left alleges a lot of things. That doesn’t make them real. The difference between Perdue’s budget proposal and the final budget amounts to roughly two percent of General Fund spending – and less than that when it comes to public schools.
The real shift in state policy came in separate legislation to abolish the statewide cap on charter schools and authorize a new tuition tax credit for families with special-needs students. These school-choice measures will provide tens of thousands of North Carolinians with new educational opportunities while spending tax dollars more wisely. They will also expand the constituency for school choice, making future reforms more likely.
The movement towards choice and competition in North Carolina education didn’t begin during the 2010 session, of course. Charter schools got their start in 1996. Also during the 1990s, privately funded scholarship programs in Charlotte, Winston-Salem, and other cities demonstrated the promise of parental choice programs aimed at low-income and special-needs populations.
More recently, school districts such as Winston-Salem/Forsyth and Cumberland County adopted enrollment policies that gave parents more ability to choose which public schools their students would attend. No longer would central-office staff make the decision on their own, based on expediency or social-engineering schemes.
These public-school choice programs proved popular and effective. In 2009, the voters of Wake County, the state’s largest school district, voted in a new conservative majority on their school board. Its members immediately began work on a school-choice plan to replace Wake County’s unpopular forced-busing policy.
After a false start and the employment of a new superintendent, Tony Tata, the school board resumed work on the plan early this year. Now it appears that the passage of a school-choice plan for Wake County is imminent. To the southeast, New Hanover County is also in the process of implementing a choice-based assignment model.
As I have written many times in the past, if you either hope or fear that charter schools, tuition tax credits, choice-based assignment plans, or similar policies will destroy public education in North Carolina, you are in for a shock. In most other states and nations with similar policies in place, most families continue to choose district-run public schools for their children.
But that’s the point – parents make the choice. They have the most information about the needs of their children and the most to gain from making the right decision. The results include higher levels of satisfaction among students, parents, and educators; a more efficient utilization of tax dollars; and better academic performance.
That school choice has made substantial gains in North Carolina over the past two years is not to say that we have arrived at our destination. We’ve only just begun the journey, and the academic benefits will likely take years to manifest themselves (the social and fiscal benefits will be more immediate).
For North Carolina families and taxpayers, however, the news is good. Let’s hope it keeps coming.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.