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Where are School Choice Candidates?

Vocal support during May primary has dwindled in the aftermath

Heading into North Carolina’s primary May 6, candidates on several levels staked out positions on programs that offer an alternative to district-assigned public schools, but as the dust settles several weeks after the election, vocal supporters of charter schools and nonpublic alternatives are falling away.

Voters who had hoped for significant changes in educational choices next year might find their options are between those who oppose them and those whose support is mixed.

Education is not a federal issue, but presidential hopefuls on the Republican side vigorously waved the banner for educational choice in their campaigns, some presenting comprehensive platforms for school reform.

Fred Thompson, for example, pledged to give parents “the ability to choose the best setting and situation to meet the needs of their children — whether in a public, private, religious, home, or charter school setting.” His detailed white paper offered support for charter schools as well as tax credits and vouchers intended to promote “innovations that enhance education through competition and choice.”

Mitt Romney adopted many of the same ideas, proposing a federal tax credit for homeschoolers and campaigning on that theme in South Carolina. Rudy Giuliani regaled an N.C. audience about his long and unsuccessful fight to reform the public schools in New York City, asking rhetorically why families should be locked into a single school based on their home address.

Unfortunately, each of these campaigns parked its bus before reaching North Carolina. Thompson withdrew from the race Jan. 22, and Giuliani a week after. Romney suspended his campaign after Super Tuesday and threw his support behind Sen. John McCain, the presumptive nominee.

Unlike his competitors, McCain’s issue statements had little to say about education early in the campaign. By June, however, a full-fledged educational policy was outlined, based on the principle that “public education should be defined as one in which our public support for a child’s education follows that child into the school the parent chooses,” an argument often cited for school vouchers.

“The deplorable status of preparation for our children … does not allow us the luxury of eliminating options in our educational repertoire,” it continued, saying McCain would “fight for the ability of all students to have access to all schools of demonstrated excellence, including their own homes.”

The conservative Club for Growth researched each candidate’s policy record, and said this was not a new direction for the senator. Nachama Soloveichik, who wrote the study, acknowledged the organization has major differences with McCain on several issues, but not this one. “We give credit where we can,” she said. “On educational choice, his record is fairly flawless.”

Sen. Barack Obama’s vision is aimed elsewhere. His 15-page education plan would notify parents about public school choices but would not introduce competition. His educational platform focuses on greatly expanding federal day care and early-education programs, starting from infancy, and the only “alternative” programs mentioned are for dropout prevention and teacher certification.

In North Carolina, more than 50 percent of the state budget goes to K-12 and higher education. It plays a major part in every gubernatorial race, and some candidates came out swinging early.

State Sen. Fred Smith, a longtime supporter of charter schools and nonpublic education, raised hackles in the audience when he told a 2007 convention of school board members that homeschoolers should have access to public school extracurricular activities, a theme he repeated throughout his campaign.

His primary opponent, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, said, “Parents know better than the government what is best for their children,” and called for lifting the cap on charter schools and giving tax incentives to parents who enrolled their children there.

After he captured the nomination by a nine-point margin, though, McCrory’s Web site replaced these statements with a platform centered on public school academics, testing reform, reduction of bureaucracy, and vocational education.

Amy Auth, communications director for McCrory’s campaign, said that the mayor is still “a very strong supporter of parental choice in education.” She specifically mentioned his interest in charter schools and homeschooling. Nearly 6,000 students are being taught at home in Mecklenburg County alone.

“At the same time,” Auth said, “he also has a desire to improve public education and is looking for ways to do so.”

So is Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, a former teacher with a doctorate in education. She has been at the forefront of the Easley administration’s high-profile public school projects, such as Learn and Earn and the N.C. Virtual Public School, which are key parts of her platform.

While the new online academy is open to nonpublic school students, Perdue has doubts about other school choices. When surveyed by the N.C. Association of Educators, she told the NEA affiliate, “I view our relationship as a longtime partnership” and agreed with their skepticism toward charter schools, saying that a bad charter school “represents mainly an unjustified drain on public resources.” Perdue said she opposes any expansion over the 100 charters allowed by law, as well as voucher programs that benefit private schools.

The incumbent in the race for superintendent of public instruction, June Atkinson, echoes Perdue’s sentiments in her public statements. Her opponent, former House Cospeaker Richard Morgan, responded to a questionnaire from the N.C. Family Policy Council that he supported both vouchers or tax incentives and a growing charter school system.

However, Morgan said the superintendent doesn’t determine those issues. “Frankly, the decision resides solely with the General Assembly to do that,” he said.

He also said that his answers on the NCFPC survey were meant to reflect his previous voting record in the legislature. Now, he said, “I want to see justification of the need” before increasing the number of charter schools.

His comments raised the likelihood that the candidates will not use their influence to make this option more accessible after election — a situation that might be the choice in several races this November.

Hal Young is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal.