Every year around this time there’s an increase in the coverage of the school privatization movement as “National School Choice Week” rolls around, a highly organized and well-funded effort by folks on the Right to build support for more public funding for private and religious academies and as well less regulations and accountability for charters and home schools.
North Carolina is in the middle of an expansion of taxpayer funding for the almost entirely unaccountable school voucher scheme as the budget passed by state lawmakers last year called for an annual increase in funding for “opportunity scholarships” every year until the state is spending $145 million a year subsidizing private schools.
The massive increase comes even as reports document the high percentage of vouchers that go to religious schools, many of which openly discriminate against LGBT students and children with gay parents.
Most of these schools also use textbooks from the A-Beka Book publisher and Bob Jones University Press that teach students all sorts of bizarre theories including that dinosaurs and humans co-existed on Earth and that gay people have no more claims to “special rights” than child molesters or rapists.
Voucher schools are not even required to run criminal background checks on teachers or administer the same standardized tests as public schools, so there is no way to compare the academic achievement of the students though most national studies have found mixed results at best.
There is a growing call to demand more accountability from voucher schools and that is one of the items on the policy agenda of the Public School Forum of North Carolina that released its top 10 education issues of the year at a breakfast this week that featured an interview with Gov. Roy Cooper.
The forum’s entire list ought to be required reading for state lawmakers. It also includes a call for more overall funding for public schools, higher pay for teachers and principals, greater investments in early childhood programs to boost third-grade reading proficiency and a stronger focus on the role that race and poverty play in schools’ efforts to improve academic achievement.
Each recommendation came with supporting data and the numbers are startling when you consider them together.
North Carolina ranks 41st in teacher pay with teachers making less here than in every bordering state. Fifty-two percent of teachers in North Carolina work a second job, the third highest rate in the country.
Principal pay is 50th in the nation and the state tanks 44th in per pupil spending — which is down more than 8 percent from pre-recession levels. There are 5,500 fewer slots in NC PreK for at-risk 4-year-olds than there were eight years ago and more than 20,000 children languish on the waiting list for daycare subsidies.
Investing in children and public schools has clearly not been a priority of the General Assembly in the past six years but tax cuts have.
The cost of the tax reductions passed since 2013 is now $1.4 billion a year with most of that going to corporations and the wealthy. When the tax cuts are fully in place, they will mean $2 billion less in revenue that could be used to raise teacher and principal pay and help at-risk 4-year-olds.
And legislative leaders are talking about more tax cuts this year.
During an interview at the forum’s breakfast for the group’s television show “Education Matters,” Gov. Cooper told Forum President Keith Poston that it is time for different priorities and that the state should invest more in education instead of cutting corporate taxes again.
Cooper also said opposed vouchers because of the lack of the accountability in the program and believes the money is better spent improving public schools for all students.
In other words, more investments in teacher pay and school funding and early childhood programs and fewer resources for the sketchy and unaccountable voucher scheme.
It’s the perfect message for School Choice Week, Cooper choosing to support public schools first, and it’s one that state lawmakers ought to listen closely to.
Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.