Opinion: Carolina Beat

No. 900: North Carolina Is Ripe for School Choice

Over the past decade, few issues have generated more controversy than school choice. Debates over the merits and legality of choice have captivated statehouses, courthouses, and community centers around the nation. Ultimately, what hangs in the balance (and what defines “school choice” in its simplest terms) is the right to decide this question: Who gets to choose where children go to school?

Choice supporters believe that parents — not bureaucrats — should be free to select schools for their children. This view is at odds with our current educational system, which gives government all the power. So, how are North Carolina’s schools faring with bureaucrats at the helm?

A review of recent education data makes a strong case for change. According to the Manhattan Institute, North Carolina’s graduation rate is just 63 percent, meaning that one out of every three students in our state lacks the basic skills necessary to compete in the marketplace. Wake County Superior Court Judge Manning, presiding over North Carolina’s school finance lawsuit Leandro, has threatened 19 of the state’s worst high schools with closure if they can’t boost scores.

Data aside, choice also brings a new kind of equity to education. Affluent parents already have the ability to exercise choice if they are dissatisfied with their children’s assigned public schools. They may elect to relocate to a different school district or pay to send their children to private schools. But lower-income parents have little recourse if their children attend failing schools. Choice levels the playing field, giving poorer parents the opportunity to consider whether a school suits their children’s needs.

Choice encompasses a range of options, including publicly funded scholarships, tuition tax credits, and charter schools. Currently, North Carolina has just one statewide choice plan — charter schools. Unfortunately, these deregulated public schools serve only a small fraction of public school students, since state law caps their growth at 100 schools. Many charter schools have long waiting lists, but their growth is restricted because of State Board of Education policy.

Why don’t more North Carolinians embrace choice? Despite mounting research affirming the benefits of choice, many North Carolinians remain confused about its legality: Is choice constitutional? For this reason, the North Carolina Education Alliance partnered with the nation’s only libertarian public-interest law firm, the Institute for Justice, on a statewide spring tour to educate the public about the constitutionality of choice.

Are choice programs, especially those allowing students to use publicly funded scholarships at religious schools, constitutional? Decidedly so. In 2002, in the landmark case Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the U.S. Supreme Court definitively affirmed the constitutionality of choice programs under the First Amendment, since parents (not the state) choose the school receiving public funds.

North Carolina’s constitution also permits government-funded choice. While almost every state in the country has one or more constitutional religion clauses limiting government support of religious schools, North Carolina has no religious constitutional impediments to choice.

On occasion, choice programs have also been challenged under “uniformity clauses,” constitutional provisions requiring states to provide a “uniform” system of free public schools. North Carolina’s Supreme Court has interpreted the state’s “uniformity clause” as ensuring a minimum standard for public schools — setting a strong precedent for choice and the legislature’s ability to exceed constitutional standards.

There’s no question that public education in North Carolina needs fundamental reform. School choice provides a powerful, effective, and constitutional way to transform our education system.

A copy of “School Choice and the North Carolina Constitution,” written by Dave Roland, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, is available on the Alliance’s website, www.nceducationalliance.org. If you do not have access to the electronic copy, call 704-231-9767 to receive the report.

Lindalyn Kakadelis is director of the North Carolina Education Alliance.