Opinion: Daily Journal

Three Visions of Public Education

RALEIGH – Because education is by far the most expensive and extensive service provided by state and local government, disagreements about education policy will always play a leading role in North Carolina politics.

In the state budget debate in Raleigh, for example, most of the charges and countercharges involve education policy. Democrats say Republicans are cutting school funding too much. Republicans say Democrats didn’t spend education dollars efficiently when they were in charge. Separate measures to change school governance, reform testing, expand charter schools, and provide tuition tax credits have all provoked controversy among lawmakers and the general public, as well.

If you look past the name calling, stonewalling, and caterwauling that pervades the debate over education reform, you will find three contrasting visions of how public education ought to be structured and delivered. For wont of better terminology, I’ll refer to them as Separation, Monopoly, and Choice.

The Separationist vision is that education should be a purely private affair. They point out that most parents have a strong motivation to educate their own children, either at home or in school settings they think will best meet their children’s needs. The motivation comes not only from parental love but also from the economic self-interest of making sure that their children grow up to be productive, responsible adults.

If families didn’t have to pay thousands of dollars a year in state, local, and federal taxes to support government school systems, the argument goes, most parents would have the means to secure educational services for their children. For poor families or those without functional or responsible parents, private charity would fill the gap.

I know people who adhere to the Separationist vision, and I respect their opinion. But I don’t agree with it. I think it is unrealistic, unworkable, and unwise. In North Carolina, it is also unconstitutional.

The Monopoly vision is that successful public education requires public-school districts enrolling the vast majority of students in each community. That is, the Monopoly vision fits current reality. About 90 percent of students in North Carolina attend government-run elementary or secondary schools.

Monopolists are suspicious of any reforms that might significantly reduce the government’s share of the K-12 education sector. They believe that only high-performing students would exit government schools if given more opportunities or incentives to do so, leaving behind the difficult-to-educate children whose needs would seem less compelling to taxpayers. Monopolists are also suspicious of the idea that economic principles such as consumer choice and competition are relevant to education.

The School Choice vision is that public education is a goal, not an institution, and can best be advanced through policies that maximize parental options among competing education providers. Choice advocates want to see district-run government schools operate alongside independent government schools (charters) as well as private and home schools that some families might attend with the assistance of tax-funded scholarships, tax credits, tax deductions or some other mechanism. And even within school districts, Choice advocates prefer that parents have more control over student assignment than bureaucrats do.

I adhere to the Choice vision of public education. As I have previously written, it is likely that school-choice reforms would confer their greatest benefits on poor, disabled, or gifted students whose special needs are poorly served by district monopolies. It is also likely that a majority of families would continue to enroll their children in district-run government schools, either because of tradition, familiarity, proximity, or their tuition-free status.

So a simple way to think about these three competing visions is as follows:

• Under Separation, no students attend government schools.

• Under Monopoly, the vast majority of students – 90 percent or more – attend government schools, whether their families like it or not.

• Under Choice, a majority of students – perhaps two-thirds to three-quarters, based on experience in other countries – attend government schools, but most of their parents have the authority and resources to make another selection if they wish.

I find the Choice vision to be the most appealing, and the only one in concert with fundamental American principles of liberty, limited government, and free enterprise. I’m not alone.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.