(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
North Carolina legislators have passed measures to provide school choice options to low and some middle-income students and another measure for all special needs children. Data from the Census Bureau indicates that these were wise decisions and should in fact be followed by more improvements.
The Census Bureau projections show that the school age population of North Carolina is set to expand substantially over the next couple of decades, with an increase of over 800,000 people aged 18 or less by 2030. For a little perspective, this is a school aged population greater than the total K-12 enrollment of Alabama and a bit below that of Colorado. How and where will they be educated?
Mind you that the largest private school choice program in the nation, the Step Up for Students Tax Credit in Florida, will educate around 60,000 students this fall. Along with the McKay program for children with disabilities, private K-12 choice in Florida is poised to pass the 100,000 student threshold in a few years after a decade and a half of admirable and concerted effort.
North Carolina however has 800,000 new students on the way. If these laws are going to help to make a dent in that figure, a concerted effort to refine and improve the laws will be needed. Formula funding would allow the programs to grow naturally along with the demand of parents and the supply of private schooling. Funding per pupil amounts must be generous enough to spur the supply of new private space. Quite frankly few choice bills have been designed well enough to pull this off, North Carolina lawmakers should make certain that their laws will spur new private school supply.
If North Carolina choice advocates can achieve all of these things, they will set up an incremental process of expanding private school supply which is similar to the increase in charter school space in states with well designed laws. A state in North Carolina’s growth situation could easily accommodate a robust increase in charter and private schools and would still need to invest hundreds of millions of dollars annually in new district schools to accommodate student population growth.
North Carolina could also accommodate a greater number of students through their choice programs by broadening the use of their programs through an Education Savings Account model. This would allow parents to choose between a variety of education service providers including private schools, online programs, MOOCS, certified private tutors, community college and university courses to build a customized learning experience. By allowing parents to save some funds for future higher education expenses, it might be the only way to preserve a public funding mechanism for North Carolina colleges and universities in the face of nationwide pressures to decrease state funding.
State lawmakers can’t charge tuition to prisoners to keep the jails open, but undergraduates on the other hand…
North Carolina budgets, like all states, will continue to face severe strains from health care spending as we continue to fumble our policies and our population ages. A crush of new K-12 students will simply add to the burden, and the way we are approaching K-12 is serving far too many students very poorly at levels of spending which will prove unsustainable. We need to figure out ways to educate students better and more efficiently. A decentralized process allowing parents and students to figure out how to make best use of scarce funds represents the best way forward.
North Carolina lawmakers chose wisely in passing among the broadest school choice measures in the country. Sincere congratulations are in order-North Carolina is now ahead of the pack. The hardest work however lies ahead.