Opinion: Daily Journal

A Path Ahead for School Reform

RALEIGH – If all you knew about the education-reform debate was what you read or saw about Wake County’s student-assignment policies or the upcoming budget battles in the North Carolina General Assembly, you’d think that there was little prospect of building a public consensus around sweeping education reforms.

You’d be mistaken.

According to the latest survey by the journal Education Next and Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, there is substantial public support for a reform agenda based on high academic standards, rigorous testing, performance pay for teachers, and greater school choice for parents and students.

Here are some of the key findings of the survey, which was administered last year to a random sample of 2,776 adults:

• Although complaints about testing get a lot of attention, most Americans still favor test-based accountability systems. More than 62 percent want to maintain the current federal testing requirements, 60 percent favor releasing test scores, and 58 percent favor making academic standards even tougher.

• There are pluralities in favor of abolishing teacher tenure (47 percent for, 25 percent against) and adopting performance pay (49 percent for, 26 percent against).

• The most popular school-choice option is tax credits for education expenses, including private-school tuition, tutoring, books and supplies, and expenses associated with choosing alternative public schools (such as the tuition many city and county districts properly charge to non-residents to account for the local property-tax share of school budgets). Overall, 55 percent support education tax credits, with 20 percent opposed and 25 percent neutral.

• Another way to expand parental choice is for public and private education providers to offer more courses online. More than half (52 percent) of respondents favor giving high-school students credit for online coursework, with 23 percent opposed.

Charter schools are another school-choice option with significant public support, with 44 percent in favor, 19 percent opposed, and 36 percent neutral. Public support for vouchers has been declining, however, with 43 percent now opposed to the idea of cash grants to private-school parents.

• For each type of school choice, minorities are always more strongly in favor than the general public is. Among African-American respondents, 71 percent favor educational tax credits, 64 percent favor charter schools, and 51 percent favor vouchers. Support among Hispanics is lower than these levels, but still higher than among whites.

• Because of the racial dynamic, the partisan breakdown on school choice may be surprising to some readers. While Republicans are somewhat more likely than average to favor merit pay, tougher tests and standards, and charter schools, Democrats are more likely to favor annual testing, online education, tax credits, and vouchers.

• When asked cold whether they support increasing funding for public schools, more than 60 percent of respondents say they do. But when asked to support tax increases to increase school funding, support falls below 30 percent. Increasing the amount of information also affects public sentiment about school budgets. For example, while nearly 60 percent of respondents say teacher salaries ought to be raised, when told the average teacher salary in their state, only 42 percent still favor a pay raise.

On many of the questions, there are quite a few respondents – a third or more in some cases – who express neutrality. They either don’t know much about these major school- reform proposals or have mixed views about them. That’s why I started off this column arguing that there is an opportunity to build a public consensus, not that it already exists on every issue.

In North Carolina, groups such as Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, the N.C. Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and others are working to build such a consensus. They could use your help.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.