Scott Mooneyham: Private school vouchers not win-win for all students

By Scott Mooneyham

Columnist

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RALEIGH — In this election year, some Republicans have been running on a platform that they say will “end the monopoly that government holds over our education system.”

Some Democrats are running on the notion that Republicans are out to “dismantle the public schools.”

Maybe both are saying the same thing. Maybe they aren’t.

It isn’t easy to tell because these are platitudes, not plans. Both sides are referring to educational choices — including privately-run, tax-supported charter schools, and tax credits or tax vouchers for private schools.

The notion of an education monopoly by the state might come as news to the nearly 700 private schools in the state and the 100,000 students who attend them. The so-called monopoly is about the tax dollars that generally support schools in which teachers and administrators are public employees.

As Republican state Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam, the House majority leader, said: “There is a huge difference between requiring education of the public and requiring that all education be provided by a public agency. I don’t agree with the concept that the teacher needs to be a public employee.”

But again, those words aren’t a plan.

Stam did put forward a small-scale plan last year, which was passed into law. It’s a good starting point to see exactly what the two sides are talking about.

The plan provides a $6,000 tax credit for the families of children with disabilities to send their children to private schools. Stam described the legislation as a win-win because educating disabled children in the public schools would cost far more, meaning taxpayers save and parents have more choices.

But is it a winner for everyone? What if you expand these voucher-like programs to encompass more children?

A look at the numbers suggests maybe not.

That $6,000 is not as much as the North Carolina per-pupil average spent by state, federal and local governments. On average, the three tiers of government spend about $8,500 per child in the public schools. In 2009-10 budget year, another $600 per child went toward school construction.

So, let’s say you wave a magic wand and pluck all the tax dollars out of the public schools, close them down and plug that money — through a voucher system — into a huge, instantly-created, tax-supported, privately-run school system.

That $9,100 would cover the cost of many private schools. It wouldn’t cover tuition and fees at the best ones, where costs can reach $20,000 a year.

And it’s far from clear that those less-than-the-best private schools do a better job of educating kids than public schools.

Of course, no one has proposed waving a magic wand. No one has really proposed anything, other than tax credits that cover part of the cost of private schools, money that is no longer available to the public schools.

In the magic world or the real one, it’s difficult to see how this idea doesn’t create a two-tiered, unequal system of tax-supported schooling.

Capitol Press Association