Study Up on School Choice | Eastern North Carolina Now

North Carolina conservatives have embraced parental choice and competition as indispensable elements of education reform for decades. Now that conservatives are in the majority in state government, you can expect more proposals to...

   Publisher's note: The article below appeared in John Hood's daily column in his publication, the Carolina Journal, which, because of Author / Publisher Hood, is inextricably linked to the John Locke Foundation.

    RALEIGH     North Carolina conservatives have embraced parental choice and competition as indispensable elements of education reform for decades. Now that conservatives are in the majority in state government, you can expect more proposals to expand choice and competition as part of a larger reform strategy that includes higher academic standards, rigorous testing, and greater autonomy for local schools and districts to hire, retain, and compensate educators on the basis of performance.

    To the extent that North Carolina parents already choose the school their children attend, they have conservatives to thank for their educational freedom. For years, conservatives fought against excessive state intrusion on private education and homeschooling, ensuring that these options would not be regulated beyond recognition or out of existence.

John Hood
    It was the rise of conservative lawmakers in Raleigh in the mid-1990s that prompted then-Gov. Jim Hunt and the education establishment to accept the creation of charter schools. It was conservative reaction to forced-business schemes in Mecklenburg, Wake, Forsyth, and other counties that propelled the creation of intradistrict choice programs in those communities.

    During the previous legislative session, lawmakers of both parties voted to authorize tax credits for families with special-needs children who might benefit from specialized private settings. But the only reason the bill saw the light of day in the first place was a change of leadership at the top.

    In anticipation that additional school-choice legislation might be filed and debated this year, I offer the following study aids for Carolina Journal readers. You'll be a step ahead of other North Carolinians after learning that:

   • Parental choice and competition are more prevalent in other industrialized countries than they are in America - and help to explain international differences in student test scores. Countries with more extensive choice programs, such as the Netherlands and Australia, tend to experience better educational performance after adjusting for other factors.

   • Industrialized countries aren't the only ones from which North Carolina can learn about the virtues of parental choice and competition. In developing countries such as India and Nigeria, private schools of choice are cost-effective ways to boost educational achievement among disadvantaged populations.

   • Many parents value their existing ability to choose among different public schools within their local districts, and there is at least some evidence of educational and social benefits from choice-based student assignment. But a broader array of options and more robust competition will probably be necessary to achieve significant gains in test scores.

   • Thousands of North Carolina parents have opted to put their children in chartered public schools. Although charter schools vary widely in size, stability, and quality, there is compelling evidence for benefits not only for their students but also for those who remain in district-run public schools. In Ohio, for example, a recent study estimated that proximity to a competing charter school led to a large increase in math and reading proficiency in district-run public schools.

   • Careful academic studies of longstanding voucher programs in Milwaukee and New York City show significant benefits on some outcome measures for disadvantaged students, no negative consequences for any students, higher parental satisfaction, and lower cost to taxpayers. Studies of other voucher programs also show promising academic improvements, particularly for at-risk students, as well as better outcomes from district-run public schools that must compete to retain students.

   • Tax credits or deductions that offset family costs for choosing private education also have positive effects not only for participants but also for students who remain in district-run public schools.

   • School choice isn't only a means of improving educational outcomes. Several studies suggest that it will also increase housing integration, economic growth, and social capital in local communities.

    Advocates of school choice should not overstate the case. The performance of individual students reflects a variety of factors and influences, including family background. And many parents will remain in district-run public schools even as access to charter or private schools goes up, so policymakers will need to reform those institutions at the same time (remember that increased competitive pressure makes such reforms more likely).

    The opponents of school choice, however, are far more guilty of overstating their case. They impugn motives and deny obvious success stories. They question parents' ability to make choices and hold schools accountable. They treat government employees as the constituency for education policy, not parents and taxpayers.

    Expect to hear all this again in the coming weeks. These readings will help you see through the smokescreen and prepare you to consider the merits of the issue.
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