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Atkinson: Health of Public Schools More Important Than Student Welfare

At forum, superintendent worried that ‘privatization’ would lead to ‘segregated environment’

State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson said her concerns about allowing students to use vouchers to offset the cost of private schooling was more a principled support of public schools’ role in modern society than the effect vouchers could have in meeting individual children’s needs.

“It’s not the individual, it’s the society as a whole, where it worries me about the privatization of public education,” Atkinson said Monday. “It’s a philosophical belief that public schools — public education — is at the core of our democracy, and is at the core of ensuring that we can prepare people to live with and work with people who are different than what one they have in a segregated environment.”

Atkinson said she worried that the availability of vouchers would erode support for public schools.

“What concerns me is not that individual child, but what concerns me is as a society that we will slowly starve public education,” Atkinson said.

Atkinson made the comments during a roundtable discussion with reporters in downtown Raleigh. The UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication’s Program of Public Life sponsored the program.

The budget recently signed by Gov. Pat McCrory authorized $10 million for the 2014-15 school year to cover “opportunity scholarships,” or vouchers, of no more than $4,200 each that would offset the tuition costs of low-income students who wanted to attend private schools. The funding would cover a portion of the expenses of private schooling for roughly 2,000 students the first year; approximately 1.5 million students attend K-12 public schools in North Carolina.

Terry Stoops, director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation, had qualms with Atkinson’s comments.

“That’s par for the course for someone in her position,” Stoops said. “The Department of Public Instruction is not mindful of the needs of individual students.”

Atkinson said the state had offered children with disabilities whose needs were not being met by the public schools the option of being served in another environment. The 2011-12 session of the General Assembly provided a tax credit to parents of special-needs children who enrolled in private school. The 2013 session changed that tax credit to a scholarship, allowing more low-income parents to qualify for the aid.

She also said that private schools that accept students with vouchers should face the same testing requirements as traditional public schools. She said parents need a “consistent measure” for parents to make decisions on whether to send their child to a public or private school.

Stoops said that while there was a means of providing private help for students with disabilities, it rarely happened.

“Few parents were ever informed of that option, and school districts did everything in their power to make sure that their child stayed at a public school,” Stoops said.

As for the testing requirement, Stoops noted that private schools already are required to administer standardized tests, although not the same ones that public schools issue.

“The idea that parents are going to make choices blindly just doesn’t hold up in the real world,” Stoops said.

During the discussion, Atkinson handed out a chart showing recent per-pupil expenditures in the state’s public schools, showing per-pupil spending dropped from $5,779 during the 2008-09 school year to $5,497 in the 2012-13 school year. She projected per-pupil spending would be $5,452 for the upcoming school year.

Stoops noted that Atkinson’s base year — 2008-09 — “makes believe that there wasn’t a major recession that started in the fall of 2008.” The state accepted millions of dollars in stimulus funding from the federal government and directed much of it to the state’s public schools. In the graphic, the green and blue bars represent federal spending the state used for K-12 schooling.

Lawmakers in recent years “did a nice job making up for the stimulus loss,” Stoops said, noting that federal stimulus dollars helped pay for school operating expenses for some of those years.

The public school budget increased from $7.5 billion for 2012-13 to nearly $7.9 billion for the 2013-14 fiscal year, an increase of 4.8 percent.

Barry Smith (@Barry_Smith) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.