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 to private schools via school vouchers.
What is School Privatization?
Privatization of public schools refers to efforts by policymakers to shift public education funds and students into the private sector. It is an attempt to contract with private, for-profit entities for various 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 four-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 often list reducing costs and bureaucracy, and putting individual needs over the public good as goals.
In the 2008-09 school year, approximately 90 percent of North Carolina’s students were attending a traditional public school. That figure by the end of 2017-18 was about 80 percent. Legislative leaders have invested less in traditional public schools and increasing amounts in privatization measures. In Wake County, the state’s largest district, enrollment in traditional public schools dropped to 78 percent this year as they lose students to charters and school vouchers. As of this past school year, 7.3 percent of North Carolina students attended charter schools and about 9,700 students received school vouchers. If we don’t start to adequately and equitably invest in our traditional public schools that serve all children, the exodus will continue in North Carolina as in the nation. This will result in a two-tier system with children from affluent families attending *choice* schools and concentrating high-needs children in the public schools left behind. We must disrupt this troubling trend to protect the cornerstone of our democracy, our free public schools.
How is privatization accomplished?
Private School Vouchers
School voucher programs 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. Before Opportunity Scholarships were created in 2013, private school enrollment had been dropping in the state.
Education Savings Accounts (ESAs)
Education Savings Accounts are taxpayer dollars given directly to families who opt out of public schools. Parents can use these private accounts to pay for educational expenses for their children. Like vouchers, which are essentially coupons to pay for private school tuition, ESAs can be used for private or religious school tuition. Unlike vouchers, ESAs can be used for tutoring, uniforms, textbooks, therapists, homeschooling expenses, and more, often with little or no accountability or transparency for taxpayers. For the 2018-2019 school year, 277 scholarships were awarded in the amount of $ 2,422,697.
Charter schools come in a variety of forms, including non-profit, for-profit and “online or virtual” charter schools. Some charter schools, once opened with public funds, convert to private schools. Since the cap on the number of charters allowed in North Carolina was removed in 2011, charter school growth has exploded. Growth has nearly doubled going from 100 in 2011-2012 to 184 currently with numbers expected to grow to more than 200 in 2020.
Virtual Charter Schools
Since Virtual Charters started in 2015, these charters have not earned above a “D” school performance grade in North Carolina. Nor have they ever met pre-set student growth goals. Numerous problems plague virtual charters around the nation, including lackluster results, inadequate curriculum, corruption, and operators who place profit above students. Originally set to expire in 2015, NC renewed contracts for our two virtual charter schools until 2023. Inexplicably, recent legislation (SB 392), which the Governor has vetoed, would allow the cap to be removed on virtual charter school enrollment even when the performance is below acceptable.
A-F School Letter Grades
Not to be confused with student letter grades, school letter grades are a privatization tool used across the US. NC began issuing school letter grades in 2014. 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. Public school advocates have noted that these grades:
- Do not reflect the learning in schools
- Undervalue student growth and other important measures of school quality
- Could result in more attention to borderline students while underserving the lowest and highest performing students
- Will have negative economic impacts on a community (lower home values/sales)
- Do not come with resources/financial support to improve grades
- Do not accurately reflect parental satisfaction with schools
The 2018 PDK poll repeated its long-standing practice of asking Americans to assign A-Fail grades to the public schools. As in past years, parents rate their own children’s schools quite highly — 70 percent give them an A or B grade.
The unfair metric of school letter grades is used to take over low-wealth schools and group them into what NC calls an Innovative School District (ISDs). ISDs remove control of a school from the locally elected school board/school district and can be turned over to operators including charter companies that can be out-of-state and even for-profit. In the 2016 legislative session, lawmakers passed a new measure, HB 1080, officially creating a state takeover district for the 2018-19 school year. Originally called the Achievement School District, it was renamed the Innovative School District by the legislature in the 2017 budget, perhaps to distance it from Tennessee’s unraveling ASD program on which the plan was based. To date, only one school has been approved in North Carolina’s ISD: Southside-Ashpole Elementary School in Robeson County. The school was selected after much controversy. The ISD has endured several staffing changes. Recently, Southside-Ashpole Elementary School lost its principal Bruce Major, who resigned on July 1, 2018. Nine months after she started the job, former Superintendent LaTeesa Allen’s left on June 28, 2018. No further details were shared about Allen’s departure. Clearly both departures cause further disruptions for an already struggling school.
Municipal charter schools
In 2018, the NCGA passed HB 514: Permit Municipal Charter School. This bill allows certain towns: Cornelius, Huntersville, Matthews, and Mint Hill, all majority white suburbs of Charlotte, to create their own charter schools. Further, the bill permits these charters to restrict access to local residents. In the budget amendments, a related provision allows local municipalities to use (and raise) local property taxes to fund schools. It is worrisome that HB514 will exacerbate existing segregation and inequality. Charlotte is already experiencing high levels of segregation. These related provisions will almost certainly worsen that trend.
Background of the privatization movement
Often labeled “school choice,” proponents of privatization, including above measures, 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.
In her research paper The New White Flight, Professor Erika Wilson (UNC School of Law) notes:
“The first wave of school choice was rooted in southern white resistance to Brown v. Board of Education. The concept of school choice for public schools was first popularized by economist Milton Friedman. Friedman set forth a vision for reorganizing public education that involved having the government fund public education but not administer it. Using a market-based consumer-sovereignty framework, Friedman argued that the government should give consumer-parents a set sum of money that they could then use to select a public or private school for their child to attend. Introducing the element of consumer-parental choice into the school selection process would, according to Friedman, spur competition amongst schools that would improve the quality of all schools…School choice as a means of reform continues to dominate the school reform landscape, despite recognition by scholars that the market based framework is flawed insofar as it fails to account for how race and racism warp the “education market” for low-income students of color.”
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 recent 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 non-certified teachers. Teach for America, a worthy effort that has nevertheless been co-opted by privatizers, offers a way for lawmakers to keep a revolving pool of inexperienced and lower salaried teachers in our most challenging schools. Lawmakers intent on privatizing public schools also find opportunities to save money by ending career protections in favor of performance pay for veteran teachers and promoting technology to replace teachers: virtual charters, iPads, internet access, etc. These disturbing trends have all 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, have shown little to no improvement in student outcomes and increased segregation in schools.
Privatization Concerns for North Carolina
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 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.”
Impact of Lower State Funding
North Carolina’s per pupil funding has been cut to well below pre-recession levels. Specifically, North Carolina ranks 42nd in the United States in per pupil funding. According to analysis from NC Policy Watch, last year’s budget “increased already-planned FY 18-19 public schools budgets by just 0.6 percent. Rather than addressing persistent funding shortfalls, legislators allowed another round of tax cuts to move forward, draining state coffers by $900 million.” By 2018-19 FY, of the 24 biggest allotments in FY 08-09, 18 remained below their pre-recession levels when adjusted for inflation and student growth. Until current budget talks are finalized, we do not know the final implications of funding allotments. A recent analysis of the compromise budget that was vetoed by the governor found that the “conference budget would have left total school funding 2.9 percent below pre-recession levels when adjusted for enrollment growth and inflation. This figure underestimates the actual budget pressures faced by North Carolina’s public schools, as schools’ largest cost drivers – salary and benefit costs – have increased faster than traditional measures of inflation.” Compared to FY 08-09, the state is providing schools with:
- Nearly 800 fewer teachers
- Nearly 500 fewer instructional support personnel (psychologists, nurses, counselors, social workers, librarians, etc.)
- The dollar equivalent of 7,730 fewer teacher assistants
- Cuts of more than 40 percent to textbooks, classroom supplies, and school technology
Diverts funds from public schools
Privatization further undermines a resource-starved public education system. During the 2018-2019 school year, 9,651 students attended private schools using vouchers. These unregulated, mostly religious schools received $37,988,912 in taxpayer dollars. This has increased dramatically from 2014-2015 when 1,216 students attended private schools with vouchers totaling $4,635,320. The state’s budget for charter schools has grown from just over $16 million in 1997 to more than $674 million for the 2018-2019 school year. Historically, most of those funds would have gone to school districts for traditional public schools.
Increases segregation in public schools
One of the shortcomings of school vouchers is that they increase segregation in private schools along racial, religious, and socioeconomic lines. Over the last decade, the number of racially and economically isolated schools has increased. School segregation is correlated with increasing racial achievement gaps and lower graduation rates. While the historic ruling in Brown v Board was over 65 years ago, we have still not achieved truly integrated schools. Since the peak of integration in the late 1980s, school segregation has continued to rise. Supreme Court rulings in the 1990s and early 2000s led to the end of many integration efforts and has resulted in increasing levels of segregation (see below).
Segregation in our schools contributes to inequitable funding that determines families’ educational options. Charters and vouchers maintain segregated schools. A recent national analysis shows that while only 4 percent of traditional public schools have student bodies that are 99 percent minority (2014-15 school year data), 17 percent of charter schools are 99 percent minority. Although, in North Carolina, vouchers were *sold* to the public with the intent of targeting poor, minority students, they often do not reflect that intention.
Research from the Century Foundation shows that white families tend to use vouchers to move their children to predominantly white private schools. In this report, Halley Potter examined vouchers in Louisiana and Milwaukee. She tracked students who moved from public to private schools to determine the impact of voucher programs on racial integration. These studies indicated that the larger trend of private school vouchers is not to promote racial integration but to support segregation and white flight.
Research conducted by UNC’s Erika Wilson points out that when given the choice, white parents tend to choose mostly white schools “even when school quality is controlled for, meaning that whites tend to choose predominately white schools even when presented with the choice of a more integrated school that is of good academic quality.” School choice becomes a vehicle for white flight from integrated schools at the expense of the taxpayer.
A recent report, Harming Our Common Future: America’s Segregated Schools 65 Years After Brown, from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA reported the changes in public school enrollment by race (see below) since 1970. Over this time we see how the once mostly two-race public school system has shifted from largely white/black to a multiracial public school system where white students now comprise less than half of the public school population. In addition, Latino students are now more than half of the students of color in our public schools. North Carolina follows the national trends with less than half of students being white (49 percent) but black students (25.5 percent) are still the second largest enrollment group by race; Latino students are third (16.9 percent).
Source: NCES CCD, Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey Data, 2016-17, 2011-12, 2006-07, and 1988-89. Data for 1968 were obtained from the analysis of the Office of Civil Rights data in Orfield, G. (1983). Public School Desegregation in the United States, 1968-1980. Washington, D.C.: Joint Center for Political Studies.
When the researchers considered the issue of segregation of non-white students in schools, they summarized their findings as follows:
“Since the peak of desegregation for black students in 1988, the share of intensely segregated minority schools, that is, schools that enroll 90-100percent non-white students, has more than tripled from 5.7percent in 1988 to 18.2percent in 2016. During the same time period, the share of intensely segregated white schools, that is, schools that enroll 90-100percent white students, has declined from 38.9percent in 1988 to 16percent in 2016. The percentage of white students enrolled in intensely segregated white schools has also decreased from 36.1percent in 2006 to 26percent in 2011 and 19.6percent in 2016 according to our analysis of CCD data. They also noted that the share of intensely segregated minority schools (18.2percent) is now greater than the share of intensely segregated white schools (16percent).” From: Harming Our Common Future: America’s Segregated Schools 65 Years after Brown, May 10, 2019, ww.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu
Finally, racial segregation and income/economic segregation are often found to overlap in our public schools. Using the number of free or reduced price lunches as a measure, the report shows that most black and Latino students attend high poverty schools than white or Asian students. If we believe what research confirms, that school segregation by race and class threaten the ability of children to grow up knowing how to work and live together, then we are in a serious democratic crisis.
Does not improve student achievement
Studies show that 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. 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.” The fact remains that the best investment for our children, our communities and North Carolina’s future is a strong, well-funded public school system.
The proliferation of charter and voucher schools leaves higher-need populations of students in traditional public schools. Many children are left out of charters and private schools through indirect exclusionary practices like requiring transportation. Charters can also exclude students with disabilities by not offering services, especially to students with more severe disabilities.
Concerns about private school vouchers
Vouchers do not cover the full cost of a private school education. Instead, vouchers act like a coupon for more affluent families, discounting the tuition they pay. Vouchers do not make it truly feasible for low income families to choose private school. 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 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 rose 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 77 percent 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.
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. Public education must serve the common good; it is not a private good to be hoarded at the expense of the community’s well-being. We cannot continue to act as if our choices for our children have no bearing on other children and their access to an equitable education. 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
Impact 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 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 August 21, 2019