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Educational Opportunity Bill: Opportunity for Whom?

by Lisa Wilbourne

Yesterday I received a press release from a group called Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina containing a letter from the president of the organization, Darrell Allison. He begins by asking who should be the “ultimate decision maker” and held “most accountable” for choosing a child’s school. He answers, “the parents.”

The letter goes on to decry the current system, how it subjects poor parents to a double-standard:

“Unfortunately, not every parent can access the school that may work best for their child. For example, wealthy parents exercise their ability to choose by moving to an area with good traditional public schools or paying for private school. Interestingly, no one seems to question the wealthy parent’s judgment in sending their child to a private school or highly scrutinizes the quality of that private school. But when legislation is crafted to assist low-income and working-class families with similar options, public education is suddenly on the brink of disaster!”

House Bill 944, the letter informs, is really about liberating poor and working-class families from the oppression of not being able to send their kids to private school by giving a limited number of “scholarship grants of up to $4,200.”

letter from the editor

Short math break: If the state gives $40 million total for this “Educational Opportunity” at $4,200 per student, that’s roughly 9,500 students–and that’s if all that money goes to students, which it won’t because with all programs comes need for a well-paid administrator or two. But there were nearly 1,500,000 students enrolled in NC public schools in 2011 so this program, even if it were a good idea (it isn’t) would help 0.6 percent of public school students–not 6 percent, POINT six percent. And for that 0.6 percent, top-notch educational institutions cost much more than $4,200 to attend, making the best private institutions still out of reach of the very students targeted by the bill.

In reality, this will be an “opportunity” to send less than one percent of the public school population to academically dubious church-based schools on taxpayer dollars.

As a parent living millimeters above the poverty line (come on readers, support the Guardian, seriously) with one child at a public school and the other not yet old enough, I have to wonder why the state wants to send our tax money to private schools instead of investing it in our public system. Did you know that all over the state, teachers are leaving one county to go teach in a neighboring county so they can be bumped up to their appropriate salary levels? This kind of turnover wreaks havoc on schools and students, and Pitt County is losing a great many excellent teachers because of it. Is it such a stretch to think that public education might be improved by fairly compensating teachers instead of taking public resources and sending them to private hands?

As a former educator at a local private school, and a highly regarded school at that, I imagine most parents have no idea what they’re getting when they write those fat tuition checks. One of the nice things for educators who don’t have teaching credentials–and some of the best teachers I know aren’t licensed by the state, so I’m not disparaging any individuals–is that they can get jobs in private schools. But this freedom from state standards extends to teachers without advanced degrees in the subjects (and sometimes without even undergraduate degrees in them) being assigned to teach college-level AP classes. That kind of thing would never fly in a public school, and the reason is simple: Public schools have teaching standards.

I therefore find it mildly hilarious that the very same political ideologues who want to “free” parents to send their kids to schools without teaching standards are the same political ideologues who have embraced “teaching for the test” in public schools, and favor dissolving collective bargaining units for public school teachers–teachers who ARE required to meet certain standards before ever setting foot in a classroom.

Finally, as I pointed out in April, the vast majority of the private schools in this area are religious schools teaching something called a “Bible-based curriculum.”

We have a system in place for ensuring all children have access to a good education: It’s the public school system. The way to make it better is not by sending the funding for it to private schools, but by putting a real investment into making sure we compensate teachers appropriately.

Respectfully disagreeing with Mr. Allison’s suggestion that “House Bill 944 provides low-income and working-class parents an option to help them find a quality educational environment that can best meet their child’s academic needs and also empowers them to be ultimately accountable for their child’s education,” I say bullshit. The system is not perfect, but sending a big chunk of public money to private schools will certainly not improve our public ones.

If HB 944 passes, what kind of public schools–schools facing not just lower funding from a state legislature hostile to anything that starts with “public,” but also seeing a portion of their funding siphoned off to support private institutions–will sudents not chosen for this “Educational Opportunity” be left with? Pretty decrepit ones, if you ask me.

Let’s not pluck a few students from a struggling system and send them–with a wad of public cash–to schools of dubious academic merit and call it a fix. Let’s keep that money in the public system.

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Responses (3)

  1. John Collins says:

    Here, here! Nice article.

  2. Morgan Crawford says:

    I totally agree!

  3. Lisa Wilbourne says:

    Emailed comment from reader John Curvey, put here with his permission:

    “With a viewpoint from both public and private schools I find the idea of my tax dollars being used to send .006 % of kids to private schools appalling. I am satisfied with the education my children receive in the public school system. As the author of this post states most private schools are religious based and tend to place less emphasis on science and theory. My oldest daughter went to private school until the sixth grade and as it turns out she has a great science mind that has not been nurtured until now as she completes the ninth grade. I feel this is one of the many reasons why the United States ranks so low in math and science scores. I feel that a good education for our children should be a top priority and using as much tax money as possible to fund the PUBLIC school system should be the way to go.”

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