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by Bob Luebke
The overheated PR engines of many liberal education advocacy groups have done an effective job of raising doubt about the commitment of conservatives to public education.
Regrettably, while Republicans in the General Assembly succeeded in getting education policies enacted, they were less than successful in explaining their actions.
The current liberal narrative dominating much of the debate is based on distortions and selective interpretations of the facts.
Take, for example, vouchers. The 2013-14 legislative session approved two bills to expand school choice in North Carolina.
Opportunity Scholarship grants will provide up to $4,200 per year to eligible students to attend the school of their choice.
Children with Disabilities Scholarships will provide up to $3,000 per semester to reimburse tuition costs or special education and related services for an eligible child who is educated in a home school or non public school.
Critics of these proposals have been vocal in their opposition.
The criticism focuses on two assertions:
1) vouchers weaken an already under-funded public school system, and
2) vouchers have been foisted on the public outside the mainstream of public opinion. Let’s explore these claims.
Do voucher programs take needed funds from the public schools?
A recent fiscal memo from the nonpartisan Fiscal Research Division analyzing the Opportunity Scholarship program is instructive.
In 2014-15 the net state fiscal impact for the Opportunity Scholarship Grant program is estimated at $1.6 million. The net state local impact for the same year is estimated at zero.
The net state impact for 2015-16 ranges from $2.8 to $7.1 million. The net local impact for the same year is estimated at $4.5 million.
With the state public education budget hovering around $8 billion annually, these estimates hardly constitute the dismantling of public education.
It should also be noted that because the cost of educating students at many private schools is less than the costs of attending the public schools, in the long run voucher programs will actually save the state money.
Are voucher programs merely the wild ideas of fringe conservative groups hoping to escape a failing system of public education?
The charge does not withstand close scrutiny. Many conservative politicians came to office in 2010 because they believed parents should have greater control over where their children went to school and because they wanted expanded access to quality education opportunities.
In short, conservatives wanted expanded educational freedom for children and parents.
Polling data in North Carolina suggests strong support for school choice.
An analysis of eight years of Civitas Polling along with results from the Friedman-Civitas Poll last year substantiates growing and strong statewide support for school choice.
Last year a Friedman-Civitas poll found nearly six in 10 North Carolinians said they support school vouchers.
Earlier this year, when asked if they favor or oppose a proposal to provide up to $4,200 to eligible students for a scholarship grant, 68 percent responded favorably.
The polls also show that support for school choice is strong across categories of political affiliation, race and geographic regions.
Expanded school choice for parents and students is an idea that transcends politics and is supported by positive results. Actions taken by the legislature this past session were in response to those realities.
Criticism of conservative and Republican education priorities has been steady.
Budget makers have done a good job of navigating difficult budgets while implementing historic education reform legislation.
Unfortunately, they haven’t done a good job of communicating the why of budget and policy choices. Policymakers need discipline to stay the course and not be detracted by the ever-present noise from critics whose main purpose is to make sure the plans do not succeed.
— Bob Luebke is senior policy analyst at the Civitas Institute in Raleigh.