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Opinion Credits to help close the gap

“The Latest Effort to Dismantle Public Education” – that was the title of an article written by State Board of Education Chairman Bill Harrison after the filing of House Bill 1104 at the North Carolina General Assembly. Dr. Harrison’s article is just a sampling of the outcry from the public education establishment about this bill. But why is there such a furor? What does this bill do? North Carolina citizens deserve the whole story.

HB 1104 is a bi-partisan bill that would create a K-12 tax credit scholarship program for non-public education in North Carolina. If passed, this bill would allow children from lower income families to receive private school scholarships from nonprofit organizations. These scholarships, capped at $4,000 per student per year, would be funded by N.C. businesses and corporations that would receive tax credits for their contributions. Several N.C. corporations, such as Bank of America and Lowe’s, are already participating and contributing to this type of program in other states. Currently eight states, including Florida and Pennsylvania, have similar programs.

The most important way to improve education is by simply providing quality educational opportunities and environments to students from low-income families. Currently, low-income students in Macon County Schools are passing End-of-Grade tests at a rate that is 25.4 percent lower than their peers; this is a gap in achievement that has increased from 21.7 percent in the 2001-02 school year, according to the Department of Public Instruction. These statistics are similar to the statewide achievement gap.

Meanwhile, statewide per pupil expenditures in our public schools have increased by 26.5 percent during the same period. Thus, increased spending has had no direct impact toward improving the low-income achievement gap.

Meanwhile, in Florida, two studies (in 2010 and 2011) by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that a similar program did two remarkable things. First, the low-income students who received the scholarships improved their reading and math scores on nationally standardized tests. Secondly, their peers – those “left behind” as opponents of the bill call them – also improved their test scores in reading and math. The author of the study, Dr. David Figlio of Northwestern University, found that the improvements in the public schools were because of the “direct competitive effect” from the scholarship program. In fact, the vast majority of the schools showing improvement are Title I schools – schools deemed by the federal government to require extra funding for low-income populations.

Why then is the public education establishment fighting a program that has proven to boost improvement of our neediest students in both private and public schools? Why are certain special interest groups blocking the passage of a bill that will also save the state funds that can be re-invested elsewhere?

Statements from the State Board of Education, the Public Schools Forum and other groups, would have you believe that private school scholarships will somehow hurt public education in North Carolina. No study or report indicates that a scholarship program has harmed public education in any other state.

Results from the last ten years have proven that treating education the same old way by requesting more public school funding has simply not worked for low-income students. Meanwhile, other states have found a way. They have dashed the myth that socioeconomically challenged students can only learn in public schools, and these students are succeeding. It is time for N.C. to look at other models that work and not stay in the drudges of the past.

Education is a constitutional right in North Carolina. And there is no constitutional reason that the General Assembly is prevented from creating programs that help bolster our public education system. We need to find reasons to help public education, not find reasons to bolster the public education establishment that is fostering an ever increasing achievement gap for our neediest children.


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