Privatizing Our Public Schools
The movement to privatize education is decimating our traditional public schools. Vital resources are being siphoned from already cash-strapped public schools and reallocated to charter schools and private schools via vouchers. Privatization of public schools refers to efforts by policy makers to shift public education funds into the private sector. It is an attempt to contract out to private, for-profit entities responsibilities, like education, that have long been the responsibility of the public 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.
Often labeled “school choice”, proponents of privatization argue that business-like competition will improve schools for everyone. According to a recent Washington Post article “School choice is seen by critics as the centerpiece of the movement to privatize America’s public education system, arguably the country’s most important civic institution.” This strategic movement starts by insinuating that our schools are performing poorly. This is accomplished by pushing standardized testing that highly correlates to family income and resources. Once the public is convinced of the apparent failure of public schools, school choice advocates use this premise to promote their agenda. 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. The privatization effort now includes school vouchers, tax write-offs and credits, school takeover schemes, 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 have been touted as ways to save money for taxpayers and to improve student outcomes. In reality, they have placed public tax dollars into 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. A recent report by the Schott Foundation shows how far this movement has gone in states across the nation. The report gives North Carolina a grade of F for its commitment to public schools and public school students “by holding it accountable for abandoning civil rights protections, transparency, accountability, and adequate funding in a quest for “private” alternatives.”
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 if the current trends to privatize continue. Enriching private interests at the expense of our neediest children is the natural outcome of the privatization movement, and it is undermining our democracy and the civil and human rights of children to a sound, basic education.
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 shows how a single grade cannot capture all of the dimensions of a school’s performance, and often only reflects the poverty level of a school.
- Using the unfair metric of school grades to take over low-wealth schools and group them into an Innovative School District to be run by charter companies that can be out-of-state and even for-profit.
Concerns about privatization in NC:
- Diverts funds from public schools. Privatization further undermines a resource-starved public education system.
- Does not improve student achievement. Studies show charter students do no better than their traditional public school peers. Charters do not serve the same student populations, they are not required to admit all students and they are not mandated to provide the same services, thus self-selecting high-income students. A report by The Schott Foundation showed that some discriminatory practices are masked. “Strict codes of discipline, lack of free or reduced lunch programs and free transportation, curriculum with a religious bent, and the overuse of grade retention, often result in high attrition rates and selective student bodies.” A study of charter schools in 2013 showed, “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.
- Increases segregation. Recent studies show how charters increase segregation. A recent analysis shows that over the last ten years the number of racially and economically isolated schools has increased and charter schools tend to exacerbate segregation. School segregation is correlated with increasing racial achievement gaps and lower graduation rates.
- The proliferation of charter and voucher schools leaves higher-need populations of students in traditional public schools. Low-income children are left out of charters and private schools through indirect exclusionary practices like requiring transportation and can exclude students with disabilities by not offering services, especially to students with more severe disabilities.
- Vouchers do not cover the full cost of a private school education. Even with a taxpayer-funded subsidy, most middle class families cannot afford to pay the difference between the subsidy and the high cost of a private school education.
- Voucher programs divert tax dollars to largely unregulated private entities that run private schools. Taxpayers do not see how students are performing or how the money is spent.
- Private schools do not have to hire licensed teachers, and are not subject to the academic standards imposed on public schools.
- Private schools are not required to serve free/reduced lunch, offer transportation, or provide special education services—and they can select the students they admit.
- Many constitutional attorneys believe that vouchers 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 percent of the money spent in our voucher program for 2017-2018 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 percent oppose vouchers when it was explained that vouchers generally do not cover the full cost of private school tuition. Further, when told that a voucher system either could help public schools by making them compete or hurt them by reducing their funding, preference for only funding public schools rises to 67 percent. If a voucher covered just half of private or religious school tuition, the number of parents who say they would stick with a public school swells to 72 percent (September 2017, 49th Annual PDK Poll).
- Vouchers pay for tuition at schools that are not accountable and often do not comply with state standards. A study done by the League of Women Voters found “research indicates that approximately 77percent of private schools receiving vouchers are using curricula that do not comply with state standards, leaving many students unprepared for college level coursework or careers in certain fields.”
- Many states, including North Carolina, fail to include additional state and local civil rights protections for voucher students beyond race, ethnicity and national origin. Only the state of Maryland protects LGBTQ students in private schools that receive vouchers.
- North Carolina’s per pupil funding has been cut to well below pre-recession levels. Specifically, North Carolina ranks 39th in the United States in per pupil funding. According to analysis from NC Policy Watch, the most recent budget “increased already-planned FY 18-19 public schools budgets by just 0.6 percent. Rather than address persistent funding shortfalls, legislators have allowed another round of tax cuts to move forward, draining state coffers by $900 million. Once again, additional public school funds are mostly directed at increased salary and benefit costs, with little investment that would actually expand school district resources. Of the 24 biggest allotments in FY 08-09, 18 remain below their pre-recession levels when adjusted for inflation and student growth. For example, funding for textbooks is down 39 percent from pre-recession levels. Funding for supplies remains 55 percent below pre-recession levels. Funding for teacher assistants remains 35 percent below pre-recession levels.” Continued underfunding of education from the state legislature and unregulated, explosive growth of charter and vouchers seriously threatens our state’s once vibrant public school system.
Effects of the 2018 Budget Adjustments
- Opportunity Scholarship funding increased from $45 to $55 million.
- Funding for the Disabilities Grants increased from $10 million to $13 million.
- Allows the ISD to essentially oversee itself “in the event that temporary management is necessary due to contract termination, lack of a qualified ISD operator or other unforeseen emergency”
- Grants the virtual charter schools pilot an extension for another 4 years even though both online charter schools are low-performing.
- Section 38.8 authorizes cities in North Carolina to use local property taxes to fund any public school located within their localities. This could include charters, lab schools, and any other publicly funded entity. It appears to address a deficiency in HB 514, a bill that allowed for the creation of charters in the suburbs of Charlotte. HB514 will drastically alter the way schools are funded. It could further the divide between have and have not schools by allowing cities to supplement funds for certain schools.
Effects of Previous Budgets
- The NC General Assembly’s 2017-19 compromise budget created ESAs for NC families of students with disabilities. Although Gov. Cooper vetoed the budget, his veto was overridden on June 28, 2017. The ESA program is 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 by 2027-28. In the most recent school year, more than 90percent 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 percent of the weight of the grade is based on test results; 20 percent 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.
Last updated September 22, 2018