Profiteering off North Carolina public schools – Keith Poston

As students walked into elementary classrooms on their first day of school, here’s what some found: many classrooms for art, music and special education are gone. At some schools teachers educate students with special needs inside tiny storage closets while art, music and specials teachers push their supplies in carts from room to room – all due to an unfunded mandate from the General Assembly to lower K-3 class sizes that some districts simply can’t accommodate.

There were some bright spots in the last state budget. Drawing perhaps the most attention was another teacher pay increase, which moved the state up from an astounding low of 47th in the nation in 2013 to 35th last year. The General Assembly deserves credit for it.

However, I’d suggest that the most significant aspect of the budget receiving the least attention is the unmistakable shift from an emphasis on public education to private, for-profit education.

Consider this. State lawmakers have increased funding for education initiatives aimed at shifting public dollars into private – and, in many cases, unaccountable and/or for-profit – educational settings by 146 percent over the past five years. Now compare the diversion of public dollars to private options with this: teacher salaries aside, the General Assembly’s recently enacted 2017-2018 budget increases spending on public school resources by only 1.82 percent since 2008-2009.

We’ve gone from 3 percent of our public school budget for education initiatives that allow companies to profit from public coffers to nearly 7 percent today. Here’s how:

▪ Private school vouchers. Lawmakers continue pushing the state’s private school voucher program down a path of exponential expansion, taking it from an initial annual investment of $10 million to $145 million by 2026, spending nearly $1 billion taxpayer dollars over that time. They’re doing this despite the fact that these funds go to private schools that aren’t required to tell the public whether they are doing a good job of educating students and to what degree they profit off of the taxpayer at the expense of providing high quality educational experiences.

▪ For-profit charter school management. Since the General Assembly lifted the charter school cap in 2011, the number of charters has nearly doubled. When charter schools are managed by private, for-profit corporations, taxpayer funds intended for instruction are used to pay hefty management fees that can be as much as 10 percent of the state dollars allocated for the school. Plus there are lucrative facility leasing arrangements, often with landlords intertwined with charter operators.

▪ NC Innovative School District. This concept, where charter operators take over local schools, has largely been a total failure in neighboring Tennessee. Lawmakers say it will go differently here in North Carolina, where low performing schools will, in theory, be catapulted toward high performance by a charter school operator, likely one that operates for-profit. But the challenges that come with operating a low-performing, high poverty school will still remain, and the track record for this kind of effort is not good.

▪ Online virtual charter schools. We’re in the middle of a four-year pilot program through which we’ve diverted nearly $35 million in taxpayer dollars to two for-profit companies that delivered classes online. Over that time these schools have seen staggering student withdrawal rates as high as 31 percent – only to have the legislature tweak the law to allow them to hide those numbers – and their students’ academic gains have been poor, with each school failing to meet growth and earning overall D school performance grades.

The trend evokes a clear set of priorities that should concern all taxpayers. North Carolina is moving away from adequately funding our system of public schools and toward private operators who are profiteering off public schools. Without a course correction, our childre – and our state’s economy – will suffer.

Keith Poston is president and executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization focused on public education in North Carolina.