News: CJ Exclusives

What does 2019 hold for school choice?

It’s safe to say the 2019 legislative session will see clashes between Democratic and Republican lawmakers, and a few of these will probably revolve around education and school choice.

Although school choice isn’t entirely a partisan issue, the parties tend to disagree on how best to hold accountable school choice initiatives, such as the Opportunity Scholarship program or Innovative School Districts.

“I feel we have gotten away from some of the accountability of those programs,” Rep. Julie Von Haefen, D-Wake, said in a segment on Education Matters.

Von Haefen said she supports reinstating a cap on the number of charter schools. The cap was removed in 201. Since then, the number of charter schools has grown to 185.

“If we’re not going to do that, then I feel we need to increase the accountability of those schools,” Von Haefen said.

It’s National School Choice Week, and thousands of events are being held by schools, communities, and organizations across the country, including rallies in RaleighWilmington, and Fayetteville.

A representative from the office of Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, the Speaker of the House, said to expect the House to continue increasing investments in the Opportunity Scholarships and working on refining classroom accountability measures. 

Democratic lawmakers have long argued programs such as Opportunity Scholarships, which provide vouchers to low-income families to send their children to private schools, aren’t properly held accountability to taxpayers.

Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, said Democratic lawmakers will probably challenge these programs.

“Under the guise of enhancing transparency and accountability, Democratic lawmakers will file bills to impose additional restrictions on charter schools and the state’s three private school choice programs,” Stoops said. “For charters, this may include mandating weighted lotteries and transportation and food service requirements.”

Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union told Carolina Journal a lot of people use accountability to criticize their opponents, but it tends to mean something different to different people. He’s interested in clearing up some of the confusion.

“We have a group of people who in my opinion improperly defined what accountability means,” Horn said. “We need to come to some agreement so we can stop the political hyperbole, so we can give parents the opportunity to make legitimate comparisons, and they can find what works best for their kids.”

Some groups are less interested in reforming or expanding those programs than they are in repealing them.

The N.C. Association for Educators listed some of its 2019 legislative priorities on its website, a few of which target school choice initiatives. Included in the list is a goal to phase out and repeal the Opportunity Scholarship program, and to dedicate that money to low-performing schools.

The NCAE also wants to see an end to the Innovative School District, a pilot program in which chronically low-performing schools are turned over to an outside operator for five years and given charter-like flexibility to help improve academic performance.

Conversely, the N.C. Association for Public Charter Schools is pushing to expand school choice programs. Other legislative priorities include expanding Transportation Grant funding to allow more charter schools to offer transportation services and allowing county commissioners to fund charter school capital projects.

The left has opposed further expanding the program to include more families and forward funding it for the next 10 years. That includes Gov. Roy Cooper, who has repeatedly challenged the program and has advocated defunding it.

“Governor Cooper’s budget will discontinue funding to expand private school choice programs for low-income and special needs children,” Stoops said. “I do not think that Republicans will play along.”

Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to include additional information.