How About a Look at the Good and Bad of School Choice Now?

By Scott Mooneyham | Feb 25, 2014

RALEIGH — A decision by a Superior Court judge last week to block a new school voucher law was met with howls of disapproval from school choice advocates.

One of the sponsors of the law, Wake County Republican state Rep. Paul "Skip" Stam, called it disappointing.

A lawyer defending the law spoke about the decision being an insult to parents who want to get their kids out of failing public schools.

More howls of outrage may be on the way before all is settled regarding the law, which would allow some low-income parents to receive taxpayer-provided vouchers to send their children to private schools.

Before complaining too loudly, the advocates might want to consider that other part of the school choice movement, charter schools, to see what choice is or isn't accomplishing in North Carolina.

The state's experience with charters schools now goes back more than decade, with legislators approving of the schools in 1996. In 2011, lawmakers allowed for their expansion by lifting a cap on the number of charters, which are taxpayer-supported, receive some state oversight, but are set up independently of the state.

When charter schools were first established, the argument was that they would bring innovation to public education, becoming laboratories freed from the constraints placed on public schools.

In the years since, even as the charter school cap was lifted and the voucher law passed, there has been very little examination here about whether that has happened.

One exception was a study performed in 2012 that looked at 10 charter schools where students excelled, trying to identify why they performed so well. The study was pretty limited, mostly focusing on surveys of school officials. It failed to delve into how differences might relate to organizational structure or how schools spend their money.

The state, though, is collecting extensive data on the charter schools, as well as the public schools. (It can be found at

You don't need to be a sociologist to look at the data and identify trends

One compelling trend is that many charters with majority minority populations are seeing students perform poorer than their public school counterparts. Four schools with high minority populations defying the trend, all identified in that 2012 report, appear to have one thing in common based on their spending patterns: They haven't farmed out their management to national, for-profit firms that specialize in that kind of thing.

In other words, they are what charters schools were envisioned as, grassroots community schools that grew out of a locally-identified need.

As the fight over school choice continues in North Carolina, policymakers would do well to start looking at the data to see what works.

Failing to do that may mean waking up in another decade and discovering that a full-throttle embrace of school choice has left a lot of students worse off than before.

The data suggests that is already happening to some.