Publisher's note: This post, by Bob Luebke, was originally published in the Education section(s) of Civitas's online edition.
"Stop throwing the spoon and bowl and climb out of the high chair!" That's what I'd tell NC Policy Watch crybabies who continue to assert the policies of Republican legislators don't support public education
It's a baseless claim. It's hard to see a Republican war on education when state appropriations for K-12 public education have increased for the seventh consecutive year.[i] When funding increases from $7.15 billion in 2010-11 to $9.42 billion in 2018-19, it's difficult to substantiate the claim.
Indeed, the current budget adds $701 million in new spending over the next two years; of that total, $669 million is targeted for pay raises and bonuses for teachers, administrators and staff. In fact, teachers will receive an average salary increase of 3.3 percent next year and an average 9.6 percent raise over two years, the fourth consecutive year teachers have received a raise. But I thought Republicans hate those evil teachers!
Not only do progressives think Republicans don't spend enough money on the public schools, they don't like how the money is spent. Take the Opportunity Scholarship Program. The program provides eligible recipients up to $4,200 per year for tuition at a private school.
The major progressive mouthpieces in North Carolina are united in their opposition to vouchers. According to critics, vouchers take money from the public schools and are they claim voucher schools are unregulated.
There is significant research on this topic that says otherwise. See here
NC Policy Watch and others respond by saying voucher programs are not accountable. The accusation implies a progressive view of accountability, one that says government needs to ensure that schools and organizations that receive support from the government are using the money wisely. The progressive view of accountability is narrow and top-down.
Of course voucher programs should be accountable, but who defines accountability? The government? Parents? Who? Progressives have historically been dismissive of the views of many parents as unenlightened and in need of change ... at the hands of bureaucrats.
A massive state bureaucracy of self-interested experts is the legacy of progressivism. Truth be told, it's all around us in state government and in local education associations.
The left cries for more accountability. Accountability looks to results. So, we need to ask: Have progressivism and the bureaucracy produced an educational system that provides a quality education to all?
Some basic measures say no. The well-respected National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reveals that in 2015 only 44 percent of 4th-graders and 33 percent of 8th-graders who took NAEP math exam tested at or above proficient.[ii] Results of state tests in North Carolina reveal similarly discouraging results. In 2015, only 45 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 who took End-of-Grade EOG tests were grade level proficient in reading and math. Regarding high school, less than half of all students who took End -of-Course tests in English II and mathematics achieved the college readiness standards in their respective subjects.[iii]
The failure rate is large. However, has anyone been held accountable for such poor performance? Has anyone lost a job over this? Yes, there are good public schools, but too many schools are struggling and solutions aren't working. Yet who is accountable? Still, the Left continues to bark that voucher schools must be held accountable. Under the progressive model, failing schools receive additional resources to redress problems. In too many cases however resources continue to be spent with no significant improvements. Schools continue to fail despite spending millions. Yet who is held accountable? No schools are closed.
Voucher schools are accountable to taxpayers and parents in a variety of ways. Private schools are already required to comply with various, safety, health and nondiscrimination regulations. Academic quality in many schools is maintained and monitored via membership in accrediting associations and by having students participate in national recognized standardized tests. State statutes also require certain schools administer a financial audit and report test scores to parents and the legislature. Moreover, if parents aren't satisfied with a child's progress they hold the ultimate accountability, and may choose to leave the school altogether. Regrettably, it's a form of accountability that doesn't exist for families in most public schools.
With the passage of legislation to create Personal Education Savings Accounts (PESAs) for up to $9,000 for North Carolina parents, the screeching from the left has been turned up to full volume. Critics like Chris Fitzsimon of NC Policy Watch say PESAs are unregulated, open to fraud and unpopular in other states.
Strong claims. Are they true? No.
PESAs, patterned after the highly popular Education Savings Accounts or ESAs, allow parents to determine how and where their child will be educated. Those might be the major reasons why parental support for ESAs is strong.
An April 2017 Civitas Poll found that 57 percent of respondents supported or strongly supported Education Savings Accounts, 25 percent opposed them and 18 percent were undecided or did not reply.[iv] Civitas has been polling on ESAs since 2012. Support for ESAs has never dropped below 50 percent. In fact, ESAs seem to be the one issue that Democrats and Republicans can agree on
Of course, all this runs counter to the claim by progressives that ESAs are unpopular. If so, why have five states approved ESA programs and, thirty more states are considering or have considered such programs?
ESA programs in Florida and Arizona have grown significantly since their original legislation was passed. Florida passed the second ESA program in the country in 2015. Enrollment has expanded quickly from 1,600 to approximately 7,500 this year. The average value of a Florida Special Needs ESA Scholarship is $8,840.[v]
The first ESA program was passed in Arizona in 2011. The original legislation limited eligibility to special-needs students as well as dependents of active duty military personnel.
The first year of the program saw 153 students enrolled. In recent years, the program has expended to include, besides special needs students, children in failing schools, foster children, and children who reside on Native American lands. In 2017 enrollment in the Arizona ESA program was approximately 3,300 students, with an average scholarship value of $11,500.[vi] Earlier this year, the Arizona legislature voted to expand eligibility to all students and will phase in the changes in the coming years.
Critics also charge that ESAs are unregulated and open to fraud.
It's not so. Let's talk first about the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Schools that accept Opportunity Scholarship students must comply with a variety of regulations including nondiscrimination statutes laid out in U.S. statutes.[vii] Schools must provide a criminal background check for the school leader, and provide parents with an annual report of a student's academic progress, including the student's scores on standardized achievement tests - which the school is required to administer at least once a year. The chosen test must measure achievement in the areas of English grammar, reading, spelling, and mathematics.
Test results and graduation rates must be reported to parents and submitted to the State Education Assistance Authority (SEAA), the agency that administers the Opportunity Scholarship Program. In addition, if the school receives $300,000 or more in Opportunity Scholarship funding, an audit must be conducted by a certified public accountant. Schools that enroll 25 students or more who receive primarily Opportunity Scholarship funding are required to report aggregate test scores to the SEAA.[viii]
The new PESA program also has several regulations. SEAA is required to perform an annual audit of PESAs to ensure compliance with regulations. Parents who receive a PESA will be required to submit quarterly expenditure reports to the NC Department of Public Instruction (DPI). Parents will have to sign an agreement to use scholarship funds for only designated items, and violations can result in the loss of funds. SEAA is also required to report to the legislature data regarding enrollment funding and the impact on public schools, as well as the number of cases of substantiated fraud.[ix]
Critics of North Carolina's program assert that because PESA will provide parents with the use of a debit card to pay for education expenses, the program is an open invitation to fraud and abuse. This is not true.
This claim fails to consider that safeguards can be added to programs to limit education expenses to approved online vendors only. Nor do critics realize that debit cards can be configured to be usable only for certain vendors or products.
Much has been made of the audit of the Arizona ESA program
. The report largely said the state should continue to strengthen oversight and continue its efforts to improve eligibility. It should be noted that, despite the publicity, the Arizona Department of Public Education (ADE) said it was pleased with the results of the audit.[x]
ADE had no previous experience to draw upon when drawing up plans for the program. As such, the audit results largely endorse much of ADE's work. Finally, we must remember that the amount of fraud ($102,000) uncovered in the audit is less than 1 percent of total ESA distributions.[xi]
The recently approved state budget includes a provision for an independent audit of DPI. NC taxpayers should be very happy if the percentages of fraud and misspent funds found by the audit are anywhere near those of the Arizona audit.
These facts will probably not change minds of progressives. I wish they did, but that's OK. I'm writing for parents, educators, and taxpayers of North Carolina who want to know about public education and school choice.
In the meantime, the caterwauling and hyperbole from progressives will continue. Attention from results will be diverted, the obsession over the lack of resources will continue, and anyone who dares to question the public schools will be branded an extremist.
Are Republicans engaged in dismantling public education? That charge is nothing but a ruse to rally the progressive base. The math doesn't add up and the charges largely unfounded. Adding over $700 million to the K-12 budget over two years isn't enough to the critics; in fact, to them no amount of funds is ever enough. And that's the lesson.
Let's ignore the noise and stay the course.
[i] Highlights of the North Carolina Public School Budget, February 2017, page 2. Published by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. Available online at: http://www.ncpublicschools.org/docs/fbs/resources/data/highlights/2017highlights.pdf
[ii]Institute for Educational Sciences: National Assessment for Educational Progress, State Profiles, North Carolina. Available online at: https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/states/
[iii] 2015-16 Performance and Growth of North Carolina Public Schools, Executive Summary, Statistical Summary of Results, published by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, September 1,2016. Available online at: http://www.ncpublicschools.org/docs/accountability/reporting/exsumm16.pdf
[iv] North Carolina Statewide April 2017, Poll available online at: https://1ttd918ylvt17775r1u6ng1adc-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/NC-April-2017.pdf
[v] The ABCs of School Choice: The Comprehensive Guide to Every School Choice Program in America, 2017 Edition, published by EdChoice. 2017. Available online at: www.edchoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/The-ABCs-of-School-Choice-1.pdf
[vi] The ABCs of School Choice: The Comprehensive Guide to Every School Choice Program in America, 2017 Edition, published by EdChoice. 2017. Available online at: www.edchoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/The-ABCs-of-School-Choice-1.pdf
[vii] See U.S.C. Chapter 200d, as statute read on January 1, 2014.
[viii] North Carolina State General Statutes, Chapter 115C.562.1-562.7. Available online at: http://www.ncleg.net/gascripts/statutes/Statutes.asp
[ix] Senate Bill 257, State Budget Bill, North Carolina General Assembly. Available online at: http://www.ncleg.net/Sessions/2017/Bills/Senate/PDF/S257v8.pdf
[x] Arizona ESA Program Receives Good Grade from State Audit, Heartland Institute, August 3, 2016. Available online at: https://www.heartland.org/news-opinion/news/arizona-esa-program-receives-good-grade-from-state-audit
[xi]Arizona ESA Program Receives Good Grade from State Audit, Heartland Institute, August 3, 2016. Available online at: https://www.heartland.org/news-opinion/news/arizona-esa-program-receives-good-grade-from-state-audit