School choice has merit

RALEIGH — When Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and his Democratic challenger, former state Rep. Linda Coleman, met on Sept. 13 for their first and only debate broadcast statewide, their sharp differences of opinion on House Bill 2 were, not surprisingly, the primary focus of subsequent media coverage.

But Forest and Coleman also disagreed sharply on another high-profile issue — school choice — that affects far more North Carolinians, as students, parents, educators, or taxpayers. As voters make their decision in a few weeks about the lieutenant governor race, I think they should take the candidates’ views on education policy into account perhaps more than any other.

As was discussed at the debate, which was held at Barton College and co-hosted by the North Carolina Institute of Political Leadership and the Wilson Chamber of Commerce, the office of lieutenant governor is not particularly powerful. Decades ago, when Democrats dominated the General Assembly, lieutenant governors weren’t just ceremonial presiding officers in the state senate. They actively controlled its operations.

Not anymore. I would argue that because the lieutenant governor automatically serves on the State Board of Education, it is on education that he or she has a real opportunity to shape policy outcomes.

Forest, an architect and community leader before being elected to the office in 2012, has championed parental choice and other school reforms in recent years. During the debate, he said the state’s recent expansion of charter schools would increase accountability for results. “When a charter school fails,” Forest said, “we can shut it down, but when public schools fail, we throw more money at it.”

The lieutenant governor further argued that students trapped in poor-performing public schools deserved other options. Forest asked this question: “Why would we not give the poorest students, the poorest parents in the state of North Carolina, an opportunity to take out an opportunity scholarship … and give it to a private school” if it would better meet student needs?

Coleman gave her answer.

“People should be able to send children to any school they want,” she said, “but I don’t think it should be paid for with taxpayer dollars.”

She gave the example of Christian schools that, reflecting their deeply felt beliefs, do not enroll openly gay or lesbian students. Should students be eligible to spend tax dollars at such schools?

This is a complicated issue. While it makes sense to minimize the extent to which taxpayers are forced to finance institutions or causes they might find objectionable, politicians are often inconsistent on this point. For decades, tax dollars have flowed to Catholic hospitals, liberal activist groups, fundamentalist churches that operate day care centers, and university professors who actively promote Marxism in their teaching, research, and activism.

To the extent any subsidy of such beliefs or practices is incidental — because taxpayer funds are specifically used to deliver services such as health care and education — I think common sense, and arguably the First Amendment, should preclude discrimination on the basis of viewpoints or religious practice. As Forest argued during the debate, the need to address the educational challenges facing at-risk students is so compelling that we ought to focus on what gets results, not what makes us comfortable.

North Carolina’s embrace of parental choice and school competition has been one of the most significant policy shifts over the past four years. The state now ranks sixth in the nation in educational freedom, up from 22nd in 2012. My reading of the empirical evidence suggests that, over time, educational freedom will boost achievement, graduation rates, and post-graduation success.

It’s not all we need to do to improve schools. Forest and Coleman also discussed teacher pay, digital learning, and other important issues. But making progress on them need not involve walking back North Carolina’s notable advances in school choice. Want to know more? You can find video of the debate online, as well as informative websites from the two campaigns. Don’t overlook the race for lieutenant governor. Cast an informed vote.

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on the talk show “NC SPIN.” You can follow him @JohnHoodNC.

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on the talk show “NC SPIN.” You can follow him @JohnHoodNC.

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