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The Daily Tar Heel

School choice divides NC education

Vouchers and virtual charters cause privatization debate.

In July, the N.C. Supreme Court approved the implementation of an “Opportunity Scholarship” allowing students to claim state funding to attend N.C. private schools.

The voucher program allots up to $4,200 per student yearly — a move enthusiasts of educational choice call long-awaited.

Susan Meyers, spokeswoman for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, said North Carolina’s decision will finally provide students the freedom to select the most well-suited education.

She said the public school system will further benefit from the program, as it will be inspired to retain its student population.

“If a few thousand children in North Carolina will be able to attend a private school, then the public schools will feel the competition of losing children to other schools,” she said. “They will have the incentive to improve just like when Wal-Mart loses a customer to Target.”

But Matt Ellinwood, a policy analyst at the N.C. Justice Center, said a comparison among private schools — where vouchers would be accepted — and the public school system is unfounded. He said private schools in the state lack the same accountability and data-driven results of their public equivalents.

Ellinwood said N.C. private schools can take any nationally normed test, whether it is administered in state public schools or not.

“It could be a test from 1950; it could be the Iowa test of basic skills; it could be anything that other people take,” he said. “So then how do you then take that random test and compare it to what is happening with the North Carolina schools.”

June Atkinson, the state superintendent, was similarly concerned by the lack of data. She called for private schools to report research to prove they can better serve certain demographics of students — suggesting the public school grading system should be more widely applied.

“If our grading system that has been passed by the General Assembly is good enough for public schools, then why would it not be OK to have the same grading scale for private schools receiving tax payers’ dollars?” she said.

Supporters of the “Opportunity Scholarship” argue low-income and underserved students will be aided by the private school vouchers.

But Elizabeth Haddix, an attorney with the UNC Center for Civil Rights, said she questions whether the state’s claim is realistic.

“There’s nothing about the voucher legislation in practice — and even as it’s written — that tells me that that’s the goal,” she said. “That the goal is to serve low-income and high-performing students.”

Instead, Haddix said she thought the voucher program siphoned off money that should be going towards public school.

She said she would attribute this trend toward school privatization to a fundamental difference in ideology.

“It has nothing to do with political parties; it has everything to do with how we think about public space and public education,” Haddix said.

With only $4,200, Ellinwood said he doubted the low-income students the state is ostensibly serving could afford to attend some of the best ranked private schools — like Ravenscroft in Raleigh or Durham Academy.

Ellinwood said he is doubtful the voucher system will work.

“This is sort of from the ‘Department of Obvious,’ but the quality of private schools is deeply linked to the amount that you spend on tuition,” he said.

Students already considering a private school education would benefit the most from voucher systems, he said.

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Ellinwood said he is also concerned with the expansion of the state’s virtual charter school program, which also draws from public funds.

But Chris Withrow, executive director of N.C. Learns, said the entirely online school provides a crucial opportunity for students in adverse circumstances — like those who have been bullied or suffer from medical conditions.

The structure of the virtual charter requires all students to have a capable learning coach: an adult with proficient computer literacy who is present and proactive in the schooling process.

Deanna Townsend-Smith, a consultant for the N.C. Office of Charter Schools, said public charter schools target no particular population.

“That just all depends on where they are; it is a mixed bag,” she said.

Ultimately, in an age of budget cuts, Ellinwood said the trend toward school privatization is concerning.

“It is kind of amazing for the state to admit that they’re not providing an adequate education for the lowest performing students, do nothing about it and then just let some of them leave.”

state@dailytarheel.com