Carefully consider education 'reform' measures

Apr 23, 2013

North Carolina legislators have spent a lot of time this session introducing legislation to reform education.

But so far, we have not seen many bills that would help the public school systems in the state. Bills like House Bill 944, primarily sponsored by two Republicans and two Democrats, would create private school vouchers disguised as “opportunity scholarships grants.”

Supporters tout that the $4,200 annual “scholarship” to a non-public school will give students and parents more academic freedom and choice, but they seem to ignore the money it will drain from public schools.

Charter school supporters also claim charters give families more choices when it comes to educating their children. Since the cap was removed on charter schools in North Carolina, the State Board of Education has been inundated with charter school applications. The solution? Republican senators have suggested taking charter school oversight away from the state board with Senate Bill 337.

S337 would establish the NC Public Charter Schools Board with the mission of reviewing and approving applications. The bill would also eliminate the requirement for charter schools to hire certified teachers and the requirement to perform background checks before hiring a teacher. Charters would still be required under federal law to hire “highly qualified” teachers, but that term has been difficult to define.

How would these new so-called flexibilities benefit education? The different standards for traditional public, public charter and private schools continue to extend the gap in educating future generations.

Charter schools are tuition free, public institutions that have to accept any student until they reach capacity. However, they are not required by law to offer free transportation or free and reduced lunches for students like traditional public schools. Those factors alone can create barriers for low-income families.

A $4,200 annual “scholarship” would not help poor or working families send their child to private school — that’s just a drop in the bucket for private tuition and fees. In addition, private schools are not even required by law to accept students with vouchers. Private schools also don’t have the safeguards that traditional public schools have for students with a disability or academic or disciplinary problems.

These pieces of legislation would only further hurt the public system by segregating students into two groups: affluent and well-performing students will be sent to private or charter schools and poor and exceptional students will remain in the public schools.

If more money and flexibility are good for one, then it should be good for all. Public schools should be afforded the same opportunity for flexibility with curriculum and operations as those being discussed for public charter schools.

The millions allocated in the voucher bill would be spent more wisely on real reform for traditional public schools instead of developing flight mechanisms from the struggling system.