Education Establishment: You’re still not listening

By Mike Long

Fall began but a few days ago. The traditional calendar school year is officially underway for North Carolina families, many nearing one full month of instruction to kick off the school year.

As sure as we’ll travel to Western North Carolina to see the leaves turn, just like clockwork, the education establishment picks up another round of aimed fire at school choice in our state, the focus more times than not on North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program (also known as our state voucher program).

This school year upwards of 13,000 students from low-income and working-class homes will have the chance to attend the private school of their family’s choice, thanks in part to the assistance provided by the Opportunity Scholarship. Talk about removing barriers to opportunity!

Sadly, these scholarships are one of the top targets of the education establishment, which seeks to lock families into schools based solely on their zip code. The latest commentary is masked with language about a perceived lack of accountability in private schools who accept students with Opportunity Scholarships—an argument that is growing more tiresome by the day, and a misleading narrative at best.

As I’ve said before, parents are the number one accountability mechanism for Opportunity Scholarship dollars and the private schools they go to. They care more than anyone about achieving the best possible outcomes for their children. What better check-and-balance mechanism exists than that?

Here’s the truly ironic part: I doubt many, if any, of the naysayers have spoken directly with Opportunity Scholarship parents, as I have. If they had, they would quickly realize something: These parents deeply believe in accountability, to the point that they’re willing to make significant sacrifices to escape a one-size-fits-all system and send their child to a school that the parent believes is the right environment for that child.

But even beyond this, the Opportunity Scholarship Program is firmly accountable under standards enforced by the NC State Education Assistance Authority and enacted by the North Carolina General Assembly.

Among other measures, these private schools are required to administer nationally standardized tests for English grammar, reading, spelling, and math; report to parents or legal guardians on students’ progress; and report graduation rates. What’s more, all private schools that accept Opportunity Scholarship students are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin under The Civil Rights Act.

Amazingly, one recent editorial even made the surprising argument that the Opportunity Scholarship Program should be reformed to become “a national model.” This, by the way, is a huge departure from Gov. Roy Cooper’s wishes to dismantle the program entirely. But the ultimate goal of this type of “reform” is to gut Opportunity Scholarships and regain control; overregulation masked as accountability.

A memo to purveyors of the educational status quo: The reason that 20 percent of NC families have left public schools is because they’re tired of being told what to do all the time. You’ve lost sight of that fact.

No public policy will ever perfectly reflect the view of all taxpayers—that’s the unfortunate reality. No system of schools or parental school choice schools can be all things to all people. That’s why we believe that parents should be the ultimate decision makers. We must trust parents and let them as taxpayers use the resources allotted for their children’s education to fit their needs and values.

Rather than attack a program that’s helping thousands of low-income families achieve a better future for their kids, the educational status quo should ask itself this question: Why are so many parents desperately seeking every opportunity to exit traditional public schools?

Only then will the system be able to take an honest assessment and work to prevent the exodus, if the system (and more importantly the education establishment) is willing to listen.