School Choice For Those In 'The Middle' | Eastern North Carolina Now

   Publisher's note: This week's "Daily Journal" guest columnist is Dr. Terry Stoops, John Locke Foundation Director of Education Studies.

    RALEIGH     Few North Carolinians realize that the state has extensive educational options for preschoolers and college students but little for children in the "middle" -- the 1.5 million students in traditional K-12 public schools.

    How large is our system of "bookend" school choice? In North Carolina, well over $1 billion in state and federal funding goes to private preschools, child care facilities, and institutions of higher education every year.

    North Carolina's prekindergarten and child care programs are massive state-funded voucher programs. Of the 24,500 children participating in the N.C. Pre-K (formerly More at Four) program, about one-third choose to attend a private prekindergarten facility. Even more impressive is that the state's $400 million subsidized child care program provides funding for 85,000 children in more than 8,000 private facilities and homes.

    Last year, the General Assembly created a $6,000 per year tax credit for families of special-needs children who receive educational services in a private K-12 school or facility. Before then, the North Carolina tax code provided parents with deductions for contributions to qualified college tuition savings plans and tax credits for child care expenses. The combined tax value of the deduction and credit was approximately $56.4 million last year.

    The federal and state governments also direct hundreds of millions of dollars to private college and university students in North Carolina. Approximately 38,000 private college and university students received $159 million in federal Pell grants last year. In addition, the federal government distributed $832 million in direct loans to 124,000 North Carolinians enrolled in private institutions of higher education. This year, the legislature set aside $86 million for grants to low- and middle-income students who choose to attend a private college or university in the state.

    Regrettably, children in the "middle" enjoy considerably fewer educational options than their preschool and college counterparts. Currently, about 50,000 children attend a charter school in North Carolina, and last year taxpayers spent more than $366 million in state, local, and federal operating funds to keep them in business.

    Even after the approval of 34 new charters over the last year, however, nearly half of N.C. counties will not have a charter school at the start of the 2013-14 school year. Despite the recent removal of the charter school cap, state regulations and the courts continue to impede the replication and implementation of successful charter school models.

    Last year, North Carolina had nearly 80,000 children enrolled in 48,000 home schools. Unfortunately, North Carolina does not provide homeschool families options for support. The state tax code should permit homeschool families to claim a tax deduction for educational expenses and contributions to education savings accounts.

    At the same time, state legislators must keep state regulators a Grand Canyon-like distance from homeschools. Tax credits and deductions are not invitations to burdensome regulations and intrusions from the state. Rather, they are acknowledgements of the great financial sacrifices made by families who forgo income and tax dollars to educate their children at home.

    Finally, 96,000 children attend a nonpublic school in North Carolina, but many low- and middle-income families cannot afford this option. Superb nonpublic schools, which would welcome these children, have suffered enrollment declines and fiscal woes since the start of the Great Recession.

    Providing low- and middle-income families a state-funded voucher, scholarship, or education savings account would improve greatly their prospects for receiving a high-quality education.

    Public support for private preschools, child care facilities, and institutions of higher education has not "privatized" these markets. Rather, it has made each of them better. It is time for the traditional K-12 system to follow suit by expanding publicly funded educational options for families.
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