News: CJ Exclusives

New Study Shows Gains from Choice

North Carolina improves rank in educational freedom

Most North Carolinians would say they continue to enjoy a large amount of personal freedom. But North Carolina is only a ‘partly free state,’ according to education researcher Dr. Jay Greene.

Current rankings that rate relative degrees of educational freedom place North Carolina 27th in the nation. This middle-of-the-pack slot is an improvement over the 38th place the state held in 2000. Greene’s Education Freedom Index also considers trends on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and suggests that states with more academic freedom score higher on national tests.

The report comes at a time when parents, educators, and public officials across North Carolina are debating the relative merits of enhancing parental choice in education vs. maintaining forced busing and other means of achieving racial or socioeconomic balance in public schools. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, for example, recently abandoned its involuntary busing programs in favor of a choice-based system, as other large urban systems in the state had done years before. Wake County, the state’s second-largest district, historically employed involuntary busing to a less extent — but continues to do so, sparking spirited debate.

Measuring parental choice

State rankings in the Manhattan Institute study are driven by four measures that Greene identifies with educational freedom. They are the availability of charter schools, subsidized private schools, home schooling, and public school choice.

Three of the four indicators are taxpayer-subsidized options that reduce the cost to direct consumers. Charter schools, subsidized private schools, and public-school choices are in a different cost-and-benefit category than home schools. Parents who choose one of the first three options can rely on lower costs because of taxpayer dollars. Home schools cannot. Like unsubsidized private schools, home-school parents pay the full cost of their children’s education. In Greene’s study, the legal status of home schools is a proxy for freedom of choice, regardless of other differences.

States with average total scores of 2.23 to 5 are designated “free” in the study, average scores of 1.53 to 2.20 are “partly free,” and average scores below 1.53 are “not free.” North Carolina averaged 1.80 points.

Index of changes

The current Education Freedom Index is an average of Greene’s four indicators. The year 2000 series contained five measures, but the author collapsed relocation and inter-district transfer into a single ‘public school choice’ variable in the latest study.

According to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, 93 charter schools operated in North Carolina in the 2001-02 school year. They represent about 4 percent of the 2,251 public elementary and secondary schools in the state. Even without counting the 27 ungraded schools, charters represent fewer than 5 percent of the total.

In the Greene study, North Carolina achieved its highest score on educational freedom in the charter school component, coming in eighth among the states. This measure indicates 1) whether charter schools are authorized at all in the state, and 2) the availability of charters relative to other public schools. On a scale of 0 to 5, North Carolina scored a 1.69, good enough for eighth place, but low overall. On any test, this would rate a solid F.

Indications that the environment for charters nationally is not very favorable are clear from the first seven places in the charter category. Arizona, in first place, scored a 4.69. Runner-up Delaware had only 2.28 points out of a possible five, and the scores sink below 2.0 thereafter. Even Delaware’s score, in second place, represents a failing percentage for charter creation and accessibility. Thirteen states scored zeros because they allow no charter schools.

Subsidized private-school choice has many levels and variants. Top-scoring states in this category, Florida, Maine, and Vermont, offer either tax credits, or voucher programs for tuition, expenses, or scholarships. Thirteen states in all offer no tax credits, vouchers, or government assistance to private schools in the form of texts, transportation, health, or auxiliary services. North Carolina is one of these, and ties for 38th (last) place, along with the other 12 no-subsidy jurisdictions.

The public school-choice measure combines three items: 1) average number of square miles for a district, 2) average population of a school district, and 3) a number that reflects the availability/ease of transfers between school districts. The study uses these items to gauge how disruptive it would be for a family to move to another school district.

A state gets a better score if a family can avoid changing schools when the family moves out of district. The underlying assumption is that stability is better than transfer if at all possible. North Carolina ranks 46th in this list, even though it scores a 4.0 on the total measure. Large school districts and lack of transfer options cause the low ranking.

Home school statistics compiled by the Home School Legal Defense Association were used to generate the final part of Greene’s score. Here North Carolina gets only 1.51 of five possible points, and ranks 28th among the states. In this category, top-ranked Idaho has 2.93 points. The availability and ease of home-school options nationwide is low, despite the fact that it is typically a fully private option.

Test scores, freedom, and choices

Eighth-grade math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are an often-used indication of student proficiency. A statistically significant relationship between high NAEP scores and high EFI scores would suggest that more parental choice in schools is better for students. Greene’s model did show a significant relationship between higher-ranked states and higher student performance on the NAEP test. Arizona, the highest-ranked state, had high levels of student proficiency. Hawaii, the lowest ranked state, lagged in the NAEP.

The model Greene used has, he admits, some serious limitations. According to the author, however, “Despite these limitations, the observable relationship between education freedom and student achievement remains strong. Where families have more options in the education of their children, the average student tends to demonstrate higher levels of academic achievement.”

Palasek is policy analyst for the North Carolina Education Alliance and assistant editor of Carolina Journal.