North Carolina has the chance to make history. The Tar Heel State hopes to join six other states in approving an essentially universal statewide voucher program. If lawmakers remove income restrictions for the current scholarship program, as anticipated, North Carolina would be one of the first states to approve such a program. Lawmakers would also have the distinction of doing so in a state where the legislature and executive are not controlled by the same party.
Two lessons emerged from the pandemic. First, parents are dissatisfied with what and how their children are taught. Second, parents want to be able to access the best educational option for their children. They want more educational choice.
Polling supports that sentiment. According to a May 2023 Civitas Poll, 75% of respondents believe a “child’s parents or guardian” is best suited to determine where a child should attend school.
Support for choice programs is also growing in North Carolina. Support for the Opportunity Scholarship increased from 61% to 67%in the last year, among poll respondents. while over the same time period, support for charter schools grew from 58 to 68% Equally important, a January 2023 Civitas Poll found that 52% of respondents supported legislation to expand the Opportunity Scholarship Program.
Yet, progressives have put up a fight against school choice. Gov. Cooper says school choice “chokes the life out of public education” and declared a “state of emergency for public education.” It’s difficult to make that case when K-12 education budgets in North Carolina have increased for 12 straight years and inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending has increased $1,651 or 15.4% since 2011-2012. Furthermore, per-pupil spending in inflation-adjusted dollars in 2021-2022 ($12,345) was higher than the previous high-water mark of 2008-2009 ($11,819).
Opportunity Scholarships should be expanded, not only because North Carolinians want parental choice but also because choice helps to address significant shortcomings with the current education system.
This brings us back to Gov. Cooper. The governor has repeatedly said that voucher programs should not be expanded because, unlike public schools, private schools lack accountability. So, has this so-called accountability in traditional public schools worked? According to annual test results on state end-of-grade and end-of-course tests, only a little over half (50.9%) of all 8th graders were grade-level proficient in reading. In math, only 44.7% of students were grade-level proficient. And the scores are still below pre-pandemic record levels.
The results are unacceptable to all who care about education. But who is held accountable? Poor results with no consequences do not equate to accountability.
In addition to lacking real accountability, our educational system has other shortcomings.
Public schools were marketed on the idea of educating waves of immigrants into a common culture and instilling democratic ideals. It sounds nice in theory. Historically, public-school values have been equated with secular and allegedly neutral values. In reality, however, they are anything but neutral. Many students graduate with a secular, progressive education that is at odds with the values held by the families and communities that finance and support their education.
The common school ideal is supposed to strengthen our democracy and build on shared values. Does the teaching of Critical Race Theory, gender identity, or a one-sided or incomplete teaching of American history strengthen those goals? These are some of the many controversial topics taught in our schools that have divided communities and propelled the school choice and parental rights movement forward.
These shortcomings underscore other truths: Education reflects a stance and outlook on the world. It is inherently a personal and moral endeavor. It transmits knowledge and culture from one generation to the next. Our society is filled with a diversity of perspectives on education: what it is, what it is for, how we should think about it, and how we should deliver it. Because of these truths, how we think about education and look at that knowledge and culture is profoundly important.
The truth is conservatives, liberals, secularists, and progressives from all walks of life think about these topics differently. Individual schools and even entire school systems have been formed in hopes of providing distinct and alternative answers to these questions. That’s our history. If we value freedom and individual liberty, we shouldn’t view these developments as problematic.
It’s possible for a nation and its schools to respect different values yet teach a shared curriculum. The history of private schools in the United States attests to those assertions. So too, does public education in many Western countries in Europe, such as England and the Netherlands, which offer state funding to schools representing a variety of different religious and cultural values.
Today in North Carolina and many parts of the United States, public education is very narrowly defined and excludes a variety of viewpoints.
Expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship Program can help to remedy this situation and meet the growing demand for choice in education. It can broaden the concept of public education and help ameliorate the unending religious and cultural conflicts that divide and weaken our schools and communities.
Last year, the Opportunity Scholarship Program provided a lifeline and a chance at a better education for more than 25,000 students. The benefits of Opportunity Scholarships are far-reaching, and the case for expansion is compelling. The time to help families, schools, and communities across North Carolina is now.