RALEIGH – There’s a winning conservative message on education policy in North Carolina – though it remains to be seen if any of the candidates running for state office will prove to be willing and able to make the case for reform.
In recent election cycles, North Carolinians have reliably put education at or near the top of the list of voting issues. They are wise to do so. Education as a whole is by far the largest share of state and local spending, and K-12 education in particular is nearly 40 percent of the state’s General Fund operating budget (the percentage has declined a little over time, primarily because of explosive growth in Medicaid expenditure).
Furthermore, a sound education is one of the building blocks of a sound economy and a self-governing republic. When a third of our public-school students fail to graduate from high school, and a still-higher share fail to achieve true high-school proficiency in core subjects, the consequences are grave for their own prospects as well as the fiscal, social, and economic health of North Carolina.
State politicians have become used to self-congratulation on education policy, but they are at least a decade behind the times. North Carolina students did make sizable gains in reputable measurements of educational achievement – meaning independent assessments that the Department of Public Instruction could not manipulate – from the late 1980s through the late 1990s. But recent trends are less impressive. Taxpayers have plowed billions of new dollars into the state’s education monopoly, with little improvement to show for it.
It’s time for a new agenda, one based on sound research, common-sense principles, and successful local experiments. As it happens, this agenda are also broadly supported by North Carolina voters, as the Civitas Institute’s January 2008 DecisionMaker Poll makes clear. Among other things, candidates should be promising to:
• Adopt meaningful tests. Contrary to the assertions of some political activists, North Carolinians are not against standardized testing as a core element of the state’s accountability system. But they are properly suspicious of the state’s own flawed testing program, which is unreliable and precludes annual comparison to student performance in other states.
North Carolina should junk its tests and adopt a national test. State officials argue that because North Carolina’s curriculum does not match up precisely to the standards embedded in the national tests, the state needs to administer its own exams. That’s backward. We ought to be adjusting North Carolina’s curriculum to what most students around the country are expected to learn. After all, North Carolina is not a country unto itself. Our graduates must compete nationally and internationally.
In the Civitas poll, 69 percent of respondents agreed that North Carolina should drop its state-only testing in favor of independent national assessments. Only 19 percent agree with DPI, with the remainder undecided.
• Pay for performance. Teacher unions tend to oppose differentiated pay for individual teachers who deliver excellent performance or take on difficult assignments. But the public properly disagrees. More than two-thirds of Civitas respondents agreed with a proposed policy of giving teachers financial incentives based on student outcomes. North Carolina’s current incentive-pay approach, small bonuses given to most teachers in most schools for meeting the state’s low expectations, hardly suffices.
• Empower parents. While there is strong support for the state’s prominent role in public education, that does not translate into an endorsement of monopoly power or a preference for bureaucratic decisionmaking over parental autonomy.
By an overwhelming 75 percent to 14 percent margin, voters think parents should decide which school their children should attend, rather than allowing school districts to employ forced busing for socioeconomic balance. Also overwhelmingly, North Carolina voters approve of state tax deductions for parents or businesses that spend their own dollars on K-12 education, be it in public or private settings. And 47 percent to 32 percent plurality favors eliminating the statewide cap of 100 charter schools, which restricts the ability of entrepreneurial educators to deliver innovative public education to the tens of thousands of North Carolina parents on the waiting list.
High academic standards, merit-based pay raises for teachers, and more parental choice – these are popular ideas because they reflect the public’s core beliefs about excellence and freedom, and because they work. Political candidates who embrace these principles and explain how they would benefit the next generation of North Carolinians will be rewarded at the polls.
They’ll deserve to be.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.