Capital Goods: January 2013

New governor has lots of school choices

Since his first campaign for governor in 2008, Pat McCrory has supported giving parents more choices about their children’s schooling. During that initial, unsuccessful bid, he spoke at a church in Durham to a predominantly black audience, many of them supporters of charter schools. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “it’s time to try some new things. And choice has got to be an option.” In his second, successful run, the Charlotte Republican didn’t back down. McCrory told crowds along the campaign trail he was glad the General Assembly had changed the law that capped the number of charter schools — tax-supported but run by nonprofits with less state oversight than regular public schools — at 100 and wanted to see the process for how they are approved and their enrollments expanded streamlined. Another plank in his education platform was better access to online classes for public, charter and private schools. He was a bit more hesitant when it came to another part of the school-choice movement — tax credits and vouchers for private education — but did say he favors some tax support for private schools as long as it’s targeted at students with the greatest needs.

What will the new governor actually do when it comes to school choice and education reform? As that crowd in Durham demonstrated, charter schools are no longer a particularly partisan, racial or class issue. In fact, there’s little difference in McCrory’s position and that of another supporter, President Barack Obama. If charter schools were once a political hot potato in North Carolina, the Republican-controlled legislature stuck a fork in that spud by removing the cap.

That doesn’t mean that the broader conservative view of school choice is without controversy. It’s a vision that has government-run schools competing with charter schools, nonprofit private schools and home schools for parents’ hearts and children’s minds. Each of the alternatives requires some sort of taxpayer support — whether vouchers, tax credit or other assistance — though critics warn that moving this money would cripple public schools, leaving behind only poor and middle-class students who couldn’t access other choices.

The extent of McCrory’s embrace is likely to play out over the next year. He won’t be able to avoid the battle, already under way in the General Assembly. In 2011, legislators approved a $6,000 tax credit for the parents of children with disabilities who take them out of public schools and enroll them in private schools. A more-expansive tax-credit measure — one critics dubbed a dressed-up voucher bill — was debated last summer but didn’t make it out of the legislature. It would have provided dollar-for-dollar tax credits to businesses for contributions to organizations that provide scholarships for needy students to attend private schools.

Even more controversial are companies operating online charter schools. Herndon, Va.-based K12 Inc. teamed with Cabarrus County Schools to try to open one that, despite the partnership, could enroll students from any county of the state. It’s on hold, with lawyers for the company and the state duking it out in court. K12 has taken its licks elsewhere, too. A New York Times article questioned teacher oversight and student achievement, and Florida officials are investigating whether it used uncertified teachers and tried to cover it up. Critics are skeptical of a for-profit model in which tax money flows to Wall Street investors and higher student-teacher ratios mean more profit.

McCrory, at one point, voiced support for the Cabarrus-K12 online charter school. But pressed about vouchers or other controversial parts of the right’s school-choice agenda, he deflects the conversation to public-school reform, emphasizing proposals intended to make them operate better.

He will have ample opportunity to address school choice in whatever form he chooses. Governors appoint the members of the state Board of Education. Governors submit and negotiate state budgets, with more than a third of what’s spent going to public schools. And governors can gain people’s attention to try to sway their point of view. But maybe they don’t always want that attention while wandering through the minefield of school choice.

Scott Mooneyham is editor of The Insider, www.ncinsider.com. Email him at smooneyh@ncinsider.com.