Privatization of public schools refers to efforts by policy makers to shift public education funds into the private sector. Many think of privatization as the “corporate takeover” of our public schools because well-funded corporations and business leaders are driving this three-decade long coordinated effort that is altering how America’s children are educated. Tax dollars that would otherwise be invested in local public school systems are instead being spent on private schools or for-profit entities; privatizers also list reducing costs and bureaucracy, and putting individual needs over the public good as goals. They repeatedly accuse public schools of failing and causing students to rank lower internationally. This narrative blames teachers for incompetence or entrenched ineffective teaching styles, and concludes that schools should be run like businesses. Blurring the lines between public and private programs by using school-business partnerships, school choice programs, and advocating for public schools to innovate as “charter-like” schools were the first steps in the privatization campaign.
Now, the privatization effort has expanded to include school vouchers, tax write-offs and credits, and for-profit charters. Many “innovations” allowed these efforts to succeed, such as using inexperienced or noncertified teachers (as in Teach for America, a worthy effort that may nevertheless be co-opted for privatizers’ ends); ending career protections in favor of performance pay to save money on veteran teachers; and promoting technology to replace teachers (virtual charters, iPads, internet access, etc.). These were touted as ways to save money for taxpayers and improve student outcomes but really they place public tax dollars in the private sector with little or no accountability and have shown little to no improvement in student outcomes.
North Carolina public schools are threatened by this aggressive national trend that relies on underfunding public schools and undermining professional teachers along with promoting the notion that parents need “school choice” rather than a single system that is open to all. The rapid expansion of funding and lower regulations for charter schools, virtual charter schools and school vouchers may leave few truly public schools. North Carolina has created multiple opportunities for families who can navigate private school admissions and charter lotteries to leave public schools. Children who are harder to serve, whose families are not capable of advocating for them, and who are the most expensive to educate may be the only students left in traditional public schools. Enriching private interests at the expense of our neediest children is the natural outcome of the privatization movement, and it is undermining our democracy.
Privatization is accomplished through many means, including:
- The establishment of school voucher programs that transfer public funds to private and faith-based schools. Vouchers provide upfront dollars that families can use toward paying the tuition of a private school.
- The proliferation of charter schools (including for-profit and “online” charter schools). Some charter schools, once opened with public funds, convert to private schools.
- The increased use of full-time online education in place of face-to-face instruction.
- Assigning a single A-F performance grades to schools. Research has shown that a single grade cannot capture all of the dimensions of a school’s performance, and often only reflects the poverty level of a school. As one researcher notes, “low proficiency rates (or low average scores) tell you virtually nothing about whether or not a school is ‘failing.’”
- Using the unfair metric of school grades to take over low-wealth schools and group them into an Achievement School District to be run by charter companies that can be out-of-state and even for-profit.
Privatization in North Carolina
North Carolina’s per pupil funding has been cut to well below pre-recession levels. Specifically, North Carolina ranks 44th in the United States in per pupil funding. According to analysis from NC Policy Watch, “Compared to FY 08-09, North Carolina’s schools will have approximately 3,700 fewer State-funded teachers (4,800, if you account for student growth), $143 million less in teacher assistant funding, $41 million less in instructional supplies, $29 million less for textbooks, $39 million less for non-instructional support (janitors, clerical, substitutes, etc.), and $12 million less for professional development.”
Here are some recent privatization initiatives:
- The NC General Assembly’s 2017-19 compromise budget creates ESAs for NC families of students with disabilities. Although Gov. Cooper vetoed the budget, his veto was overridden on June 28, 2017, and the budget is law. The ESA program was the final piece of the privatization puzzle in our state. The completed picture is a state funding unaccountable private institutions at the expense of a nationally renowned system of free and equitable public schools.
- With the passage of its 2016-17 biennial budget during the 2016 short Legislative Session, the NC General Assembly expanded the Opportunity Scholarship Program, a school voucher program, by adding $10 million to its budget annually until it costs taxpayers $144 million per year in 2027-28. In the most recent school year, more than 90% of the schools receiving money were religious schools.
- In 2016, the General Assembly passed HB1080, creating an Achievement School District in NC. It will be made up of five low-performing elementary schools from around the state, which will be taken over and given to charter companies to run. These companies have no accountability to the local taxpayers even though the local districts remain responsible for school buildings and transportation. This risky, unaccountable scheme has not worked in any state that has tried it previously, and there are fewer safeguards in the North Carolina plan than in some of those.
- In 2011, Senate Bill 8 lifted the statewide cap of 100 charter schools. Now, in 2016, 167 charter schools operate in North Carolina, and eight more have been approved for 2017-18 for a total of 175 charter schools.
- In February 2015, the State Board of Education granted approval to K-12, Inc. and Connections Academy to open online charter schools. Despite ample evidence that virtual charter schools do not serve students well, in 2016, the General Assembly relaxed the rules for two virtual charter companies operating within NC.
- In the 2011 General Session, the legislature enacted a scholarship grant bill for children with disabilities, which provides up to $6,000 per year to families whose child with a disability moves from a public school to attend a private school or home school. This program was expanded by $5 million in the 2016 budget.
- In 2013, the NC General Assembly passed the Excellent Public Schools Act as part IX of the Appropriations Act of 2013. Section 9.4 of this Act calls for the awarding of individual school performance grades; 80% of the weight of the grade is based on test results; 20% of the weight of the grade is based on school growth. This formula was not changed despite a 2016 proposal to make it a more equitable 50/50 split.
Concerns about privatization in NC:
- Diverts funds from public schools.Privatization further undermines a resource-starved public education system.
- Does not improve student achievement.Vouchers and charter schools. In the largest national study of charter schools to date, “there remain worrying numbers of charter schools whose learning gains are either substantially worse than the local alternative or are insufficient to give their students the academic preparation they need to continue their education or be successful in the workforce.” (CREDO, 2013) The fact remains that the best investment for our children, our communities and North Carolina’s future is a strong, well-funded local public school system.
- Vouchers may violate the separation of church and state:Nearly two-thirds of North Carolina’s private schools are religious or faith-based schools, and more than 90% of the money spent in our voucher program for 2015-16 went to religious schools. Using a voucher to attend a religious school raises concerns about the appropriate use of taxpayer money. A poll of North Carolinians found that 61% oppose vouchers. (September 2013, Public Policy Polling)
Last updated June 21, 2017