Thursday, July 30, 2015

Will 'Opportunity Scholarships' Be To Public Education What Uber Is To Taxis?

'What would you choose: Uber or a traditional taxi?'
The North Carolina Supreme Court caused quite a stir last week when they ruled 4-3 in favor of 'Opportunity Scholarships' which will provide $4200 for qualified students to attend a private school of their choice.

The intense opposition from supporters of the status quo in public education made you wonder:

"Are 'Opportunity Scholarships' the 'Uber' of our education system?"

Think about it. Public education has long been a monopoly protected by government fiat much like the practically-antiquated 'medallion' system for our nation's taxicab services. Mayor de Blasio of New York tried to ban Uber from New York until public pressure forced him to step aside in the pursuit of progress.

Uber, on the other hand, is a free-market solution that uses the latest in wireless technology to 'order' a car to come pick you up when you want to be picked up and take you to your destination. Uber is totally disrupting the old taxicab market from New York City to Los Angeles, California mainly because it offers 'choice' in transportation about town and to and from the airport.

Recently, we pointed out how even the very liberal-to-socialist governments of Vermont and Paris, France for decades have allowed government money to follow students through school choice options to attend private, and even religious Catholic schools in Paris, to help them get the best possible education they can regardless of any background, socio-economic situation, race, creed or color.

Such options place the critical decision of 'choice' in the hands of the student and his/her family. Just like Uber is now putting the choice decision in the hands of the consumer and not in the hands of the government-protected medallion taxicab companies.

Neither the public education system in Vermont or Paris have collapsed as far as we can tell. The concurrent expenditure of public money on private or religious schools has not 'killed public education' as proponents in both areas might have argued over the years.

Without understanding how North Carolina, and most states, fund public education, it is very hard to understand how the apparent depletion of 'public funds' for public education to support such private scholarships will not 'destroy' public education.

For one, the bulk of the funds for public education come from the North Carolina General Assembly in Raleigh funded by state taxes you pay every pay period. Contrary to common belief, North Carolina actually ranks in the top 10 of states which have a higher percentage of their state teacher salaries paid for by the state.

The rest of it comes from local county government, wherein lies the program for North Carolina. North Carolina is still a rural state in many ways. In counties that have been decimated by the export of textile jobs overseas; the demise of the furniture industry and the decline of tobacco in some areas, their property tax base is so low they can not fund great amounts for teacher's salaries and other expenses for their public school system.

Mecklenburg County, for example, contributes $4000 or so per student each year in county funds. Tyrrell County, on the other hand, contributes $200 or so per student each year in county funds. You do the math.

There are 600 public school students in Tyrrell County. Total.

There are over 135,000 students enrolled in Mecklenburg County Schools in Charlotte. Close to 30,000 other students are enrolled in private, religious or home schools in the CMS catchment area.

Big difference. There are high school grade classes in single 4-AA high schools in Charlotte that number more than the entire student population of Tyrrell County.

Enter into this debate the issue of Opportunity Scholarships.

As noted before, each qualified and accepted student gets $4200 in state funds to go to any private school nearby if: A) the student has been enrolled in public education and B) it can be shown that the student has received a less-then-stellar education to that point and is eager and able to do more challenging course work at another school.

Where does that Opportunity Scholarship money come from and where does the rest of it go?

North Carolina's overall budget is divided up into two pots of money. One is the public education budget and the other is the general fund part of the budget that is up for discussion each legislative session.

The $4200 Opportunity Scholarship money comes from the 'general fund' of the NC state budget every year. Not the public education fund.

On average, it costs about $9000 per student to educate them in the North Carolina public education system today. Taking the $4200 Opportunity Scholarship out of that average (again, recognizing the vast differences between counties such as Tyrrell and Mecklenburg) leaves close to $5000 in the existing public education system.

Since the inherent cost of teaching that student who receives the Opportunity Scholarship has been removed from the public school to which he/she formerly attended, that public school system has one less child to teach. It continues to receive the $5000 formerly associated with that student who has left the public system at least for the duration of the biennial budget cycle in most cases.*

$5000 per student that has left the system that the public education system in that county can do with whatever they please.

They can pay teachers more. They can hire more administrative assistants. They can buy more trombones for the band and athletic equipment for their teams.

We only bring this up to point out that critics who are saying that Opportunity Scholarships 'are an affront to the North Carolina Constitution!' or 'the stupidest thing the Republicans have come up with yet' may not thought this through completely.

Less attendance in public schools means less stress on the communities to build new schools to meet growing demand, for example. Charter and private schools make do with renovated old schools, for example thereby reducing the need for expensive bond referendums to pay for shiny new schools with all-weather turf athletic fields.

We know of a great private school, Durham Nativity School, that has met for 13 years in a church during the weekdays when no one else is occupying the otherwise very fine Grace Baptist Church building. They have sent dozens of African-American and Hispanic youth to fine prep schools including Durham Academy, Woodberry Forest and the Christ School in Asheville most of whom go on to complete college and earn a degree.

The chances of many of these same students accomplishing the same thing in their previous public schools were slim to none.

Aren't the kids at Durham Nativity getting the same chance at 'freedom' and 'choice' and improving their lives just as Uber users are getting when they decide if they want to order a Uber ride or wait on the corner in the cold rain for 30 minutes watching dozens of Yellow Taxis go by before 1 finally picks you up?

It might be helpful to sit back first and think about the advantages this ruling is going to give students and parents of these motivated students to pursue a quality better education that fits their needs, just as Uber allows adults the chance to get a cab ride based on their needs.

Isn't that the end goal anyway? Better education for our children? Any way we can find it?

Such scholarships are never going to 100% replace or supplant public education in North Carolina or any other state in the Union. Not when there are over 1.5 million students now in 2613 public schools and 141 charter public schools in North Carolina versus just over 97,000 in 574 private schools and 110,000 home-schooled students across the state.

A form of school choice has been going on in Florida for years now and the public education system is still going strong. After all that time, less than 5% of all students in Florida are now participating in the school choice plan in the state. That is hardly 'killing' public education in Florida at least.

However, school choice options are an important first step at evolving and changing our big-box public education system back to where the education of the student is paramount to anything else in public schools.

If they don't work, and students such as those at Durham Nativity School don't go on to great things later in life, then let's try something else down the road.

Maybe we should start looking at 'educating the public' in a way that Thomas Jefferson may have had in mind when he wrote the following to William C. Jarvis in 1820:
"I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.  This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." 
We do know for sure Mr. Jefferson would not approve of any restriction to the opportunities for anyone to pursue their education. Do you?

*Caveats: Every other year, the NC General Assembly allocates appropriations for public education based on 'ADM' or average daily membership of each public school in the state. If a public school system is in a declining area today with little to no growth, they will experience a flat or even a reduction in funding as it is today. 

Many of the Opportunity Scholarships being offered at this time are in counties that are experiencing significant rates of growth in which case the students who leave the system are being replaced and then some by estimates of new enrollees at the beginning of each school year.

Sadly, rates of school dropouts are still too high in North Carolina which means that during the school year, on average 2.45% of all North Carolina high school students drop out of school, some forever, some for the year. That means by the end of any school year in NC, 37,500 fewer students are in classrooms than at the beginning of the school year. Funding for the schools do not drop even though the number of students they are teaching may have dropped during the school year.

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