Opportunity Scholarships: A Critique of the “Duke Attack”

February 1st, 2018 by

Opportunity Scholarships
A Critique of the “Duke Attack”
Paul Stam
February 1, 2018

“School Vouchers in North Carolina – The First Three Years” was authored by Professor Jane R. Wettach of the Children’s Law Clinic, Duke Law School in March 2017. The report errs by its failure to report relevant facts and by gross failure of analysis.

First, scholarships in 2017-18 will cover one-half of 1% of the public-school (K-12) population of North Carolina. This is far below the demand shown by surveys taken recently in North Carolina which show that 35% of parents would send their child to a private school if money were not an obstacle. That would mean about 525,000 children would now be in private school. The numbers will never reach that figure.

There are approximately 100,000 students in private schools today (of which 7,242 receive opportunity scholarships). At the 2027 projected levels of funding for the scholarships, that would mean approximately 136,000 students (36,000 on opportunity scholarship, 2% of the public school population) would be in private schools.

The report emphasizes cumulative projected expenditures of $900 million by 2027 for scholarships. But if you add those years to the other side of the ledger, there would be about $80 billion in K-12 spending for public schools in those same years. The report fails to mention that this $900 million expense will be offset by virtually that same $900 million dollars in savings to state and county taxpayers. They are no longer paying the operating cost of educating those same children in the public schools. Those savings do not include the capital costs of educating those children. In Wake County alone I estimate the capital savings for the children already on scholarship at about $20 million.

Second, the report states that private schools need not be accredited. True. But public schools are not required to be accredited. Accreditation is often meaningless. Forty-three (43) traditional public high schools were committing “academic genocide,” declared Judge Manning in the Leandro case.  These schools were also “accredited.” Accreditation is a worthy goal, depending on the criteria used by the accrediting agency.

Third, the report emphasizes that private schools do not administer the state “end-of-grade” tests. Right. But they do administer nationally normed tests on grammar, reading, and math (annually for scholarship students) which paint a truer picture than the state tests. I urge our district public schools to use nationally normed tests. We have had decades of problems with homegrown “end-of-grade” tests.

Fourth, Professor Wettach criticizes Opportunity Scholarships because they do not require that students be in “failing schools” or “low performing schools.” Some supporters of the program have used that as a rationale. I do not. But that is not a defect in the program. A relatively low income student may well move from a fine traditional public school to a private school for many reasons:  (A) the private school is near the parents’ employment and the parents feel that it would be better for the child to ride with them rather than spend hours on a bus; (B) the curriculum may be more interesting to the child who wants to take up chess and Latin instead of robots and Spanish; (C) the student may want to have religious instruction or worship as part of the school day, which is forbidden in public schools but is a perfectly normal and natural part of a classical education; (D) the private school may have a lower class size ratio, which parents might think that is important for their child; (E) the parents may be happy with the public school but the teacher assigned to that student for that year may not be the best; (F) the child has been bullied in the public school and wants to go where her parents believe that will not happen; or (G) the child may not appreciate the vulgar language used at some public schools, even in elementary grades.

Fifth, the report states that the program reserves a portion of the scholarships for kindergarten and first graders. But this is not correct. The law actually limits the number of kindergarten and first grade students who may be awarded scholarships to 40%. This is a defect in the program which could be improved by doing away with it.

Sixth, Professor Wettach makes this astounding claim about segregation in private schools. “More than 80% of schools had more than half of the same race.” That’s akin to the remarkable observation that half of all North Carolinians have an IQ that is above average. Only in Lake Wobegon are the children all above average (girls). Except in areas where there is a significant contingent of those who are neither African-American nor white, most schools, public or private, will have more than half of the same race. 80% is unremarkable.

She states that the program “may well be contributing to increasing school segregation.” There is no evidence for this. The report notes that Opportunity Scholarships are more popular among African-Americans than white students. Polling shows that African-Americans are more positive about school choice than any other ethnic group.  If the effect of the program is that more African-American students go to private school, it is more plausible that the program is contributing to desegregation of private schools while simultaneously contributing to the desegregation of public schools. That is not proven either. We just don’t know. But Professor Wettach’s speculation is not plausible.

Seventh, the report recognizes that in private schools quality is controlled by the parents. She claims that there is no state power to shut down a private “fringe” school. This is akin to the claim by a superintendent that scholarships would be funding terrorist training camps. Parents are more likely to notice the lack of academic preparation than will a bureaucratic public system. In a domestic situation or a social services investigation parents can be prohibited from sending a child to a school if the child is not being educated. In that case, the representative of the state’s Division of Non-Public Education is able to obtain testing records for that child.

In a 2016 Friedman Foundation Report by Dr. Greg Forster https://www.edchoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/2016-5-Win-Win-Solution-WEB.pdf, 31 out of 33 peer-reviewed studies have found that a choice program improves the outcome for public-school students in the neighboring area. One report found no effect and one found a negative effect. This profound and positive effect on neighboring schools occurs for the same reason that grocery shopping in Apex has drastically improved over my 40 years here. Forty years ago, Apex had only one store with high prices, bad service, and inadequate selection. Now we have dozens of grocery stores with lower prices, excellent service, and selection. These stores must compete in order to make money.

The Duke report tries to compare academic outcomes of private schools versus public school for low-income students in North Carolina.  The report notes that this was not an “apples to apples comparison” and “based on limited data.”  Professor Wettach tries to draw conclusions with no evidence that her control group was actually substantially similar to the study group. It is too early to have specific results for North Carolina on that issue.

Eighth, the report complains about discrimination and advocates that no form of discrimination should be allowed. The report fails to appreciate the difference between private and public discrimination.  Should the state discriminate on the basis of sex? No. For 50 years the state has provided money to 35 four-year private liberal arts colleges to help educate residents of North Carolina. Think Meredith, Bennett, Salem, and Peace. Is it really a bad thing that women students at Meredith have been educated, partly at state expense?  Men only had 31 choices of schools and women had 35.

There are about 10,000 churches in North Carolina that receive exemption from property tax or income tax and to whom charitable contributions may be claimed as a deduction.  Is Duke University claiming that these churches should not be allowed to discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring and programs? That is an odd position for Duke to take.

NOTE:  The author was a member of the House for 16 years, the last 10 as Republican Leader or Speaker Pro Tem.  He practices law in Apex, North Carolina and may be reached at paulstam@stamlawfirm.com. His website is www.paulstam.info. This article is found under Articles of 2018.