As elementary and secondary schools open their doors across North Carolina for the 2018-19 academic year, the cumulative effects of some 20 years of school-choice initiatives are impossible to miss.
New charter schools are opening all across the state. Some school districts are launching or relaunching their own schools of choice, as magnets or as options for open-enrollment programs. And thousands of North Carolina children are entering private or home schools for the first time this year, many receiving state scholarships or other public assistance.
A generation ago, only a relative handful of students, disproportionately affluent and urban, went to schools that weren’t run by districts. Today, about 20 percent of young North Carolinians attend chartered public schools, private schools or home schools. In some counties, the ratio is closer to 30 percent. In virtually all counties, the ratio is rising.
Longtime critics of choice and competition are seething about these developments. The education landscape used to be tidier. They’d like to tidy it up, again, by restricting or eliminating parental-choice programs. While some are reacting purely out of self-interest, I assume that most critics truly believe countywide districts ought to be the default means of organizing and delivering educational services, with a few charters maintained as laboratories of innovation and a small private-education sector tolerated by authorities but firmly excluded from scholarship assistance or tax credits.
I think the critics are mistaken on the merits. Although the empirical evidence is mixed, as it is on so many other questions of education policy, most peer-reviewed studies find that parental choice and school competition are associated with higher test scores, graduation rates, college-completion rates, or other objective measures of student success. Choice and competition are even more strongly correlated with subjective measures such as parental satisfaction and student feelings of safety.
As a policy matter, it has never made much sense to treat K-12 education as fundamentally different from day care, preschool, higher education, health care, and housing — all services that are widely viewed as critically important, feature intense competition among a range of public and private providers, and receive various direct and indirect subsidies from local, state, and federal governments, including direct grants and contracts, loan subsidies and guarantees, client vouchers, and tax credits.
As a matter of fairness, wealthy families have already exercised, and will always exercise, extensive control over their children’s education. I’m not just talking about the wherewithal to pay tuition. North Carolinians with the means to do so have routinely, for generations, based their housing purchases in part on the location of school-assignment zones. Understandably, they have sought to place their children in the best-possible “free” school. Other parents have shared the same goal but lacked the same access to the requisite information and financial resources.
I freely admit that there’s a lot more to education reform than choice programs. Most North Carolinians continue to send their children to district-run schools. That would continue to be true even if, say, hundreds of new charter or private options popped up in just the next few years, enough to double the share of non-district students to 40 percent of statewide enrollment.
That’s why I support continued reforms of principal training and compensation, of how districts pay and deploy teachers, of curriculum and testing, and many other aspects of public education. Thousands of students attend private colleges and universities across North Carolina, most with some form of government assistance. And yet policymakers properly concern themselves with the proper administration of state colleges and universities.
Most would say, in fact, that the existence of competition in higher education is a positive force in driving continued reform and change on the public campuses, and that competition among taxpayer-subsidized hospitals generates better results than a hospital cartel or monopoly. The same effect is likely, and indeed is already evident, with respect to district-run public schools.
To the critics, I offer this unsolicited but sincere advice: be realistic. Choice and competition are here to stay.