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Shrinking public schools reflects the state's neglect

Advocates of school choice are heartened by new numbers showing that nearly 1 in 5 North Carolina students are opting out of traditional public schools. Many children are instead attending charter schools or private schools or being educated at home.

Meanwhile, enrollment has fallen in North Carolina’s traditional public schools for three years in a row and the percentage of the state’s schoolchildren attending those schools has declined by 5.6 percent since the 2010-11 school year..

For school choice boosters the shifting enrollment balance is a good thing. Supposedly, parents are gaining educational options for their children and traditional public schools are being sharpened by the competition.

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But the truth is quite different. What’s happening in North Carolina is that a concerted effort by the Republican-controlled General Assembly is starving public schools of resources and encouraging the expansion of educational options that lack standards and oversight.

Traditional public schools are the most effective way to create an educated public. Diminishing them shortchanges the 80.8 percent of North Carolina schoolchildren who attend traditional public schools and it undermines the goal of broadly educating the public to support a strong economy and an effective democracy.

There’s nothing wrong with school choice itself. Parents have chosen to send their children to private schools and religious schools since schools have existed. But it is wrong to encourage the expansion of school choice by making traditional public schools less effective and less attractive.

The latter is what has happened since Republicans took control after gaining majorities in the state House and Senate in 2011. The 100-school cap on charter schools was lifted and the resulting proliferation of charters in some districts is draining funding. In Durham, for instance, rising charter school attendance has the Durham Public School System serving only 70.9 percent of the county’s school children. Since state funding is on a per-student basis, school systems in county’s with growing charter school attendance lose state funding but still must maintain the constant costs of school maintenance, operations and transportation.

The legislature is also expanding voucher programs that provides up to $4,200 per year to help children from lower-income families attend private schools. The voucher program diverts schoolchildren from public schools but the state has imposed almost no standards on the quality of instruction being provided at schools that receive voucher payments. A League of Women’s Voters review of the voucher program found most of the funding goes to small, religious schools with curricula that do not meet public school standards.

Meanwhile, despite much talk about raising teacher salaries, the legislature has favored tax cuts over investment in public education. Adjusted for inflation, per-pupil funding is less today than it was 10 years ago. But even as funding shrinks, the legislature is mandating smaller class sizes and putting letter grades on public schools. The grades only advertise the obvious: the greater the poverty, the lower the grade.

Educational options are fine, but the foundation of public education also must be protected. Fortunately public school teachers are taking steps to protect that foundation. The group Red4EDNC plans to form a “Teachers Congress” that will press for more school funding and slow the shift of traditional school funding to charter schools and vouchers.

If North Carolina is going to foster school choice, it should first ensure that choosing a traditional public school anywhere in the state is an excellent choice.

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