It is a carpe diem moment. With Republicans now in control of the General Assembly, a move is afoot to cross a line that has not been breached before, the line separating private and public elementary and secondary education in the way they are funded. This is a serious, potentially revolutionary step.
The differences have been clear as a bell for generations, in terms of financing: private means parents pay to send their children to schools of their choosing; public means a taxpayer-funded system. The two are brought together only in terms of testing that measures the success in the classroom and students' qualifications to move ahead, and their readiness for higher education.
Boiled to the bones, the idea, promoted by Apex Republican Rep. Paul Stam, majority leader of the state House, is this: give some parents (an income ceiling of $100,000 for married couples would be set to qualify) a $2,500 annual refundable tax credit, and offer counties the option of giving them an additional $1,000, to offset the costs of private school.
Money, but more
The argument Stam puts forth is that even with the credit and the money from counties, governments would save money on schools. That's true on its face. The state and counties spend an average of $6,900 a year per pupil, so presumably they'd save that amount, minus the value of the tax credits, for every student who opted out for private school.
The idea is cast as a numbers game - rewarding parents who send their children to private schools for reducing the number of students in public schools, thus lowering the expense for taxpayers. But the implications are broader. The principle behind public education in North Carolina is to provide all families with an equal opportunity under the state constitution for a sound basic education. And good public schools help the entire state in many ways, from enriching communities for which schools are a focal point to helping the state recruit new business.
Private education is of value as well. It is good for people to have such choices. But the choice should not also obligate all other taxpayers to share in that expense. And through charter schools, the state already funds a choice within the public education system for those parents who prefer schools that are more experimental in their curricula and teaching methods.
The estimated number of students whose parents might be eligible for and accept the option falls in a wide range, from 8,000 to 15,000. The legislature's Fiscal Research Division estimates the savings in operation costs statewide for fiscal year 2012-2013 to be $58 million. Counties would be estimated to save $22.5 million.
But those savings would have to be offset by the cost of the tax credits, put at an estimated $28.6 million for 2012-13. On a statewide basis, the net savings wouldn't be so large that it would be worth blurring the lines between public and private schools and encouraging more families to make the switch. Inevitably, the public schools would lose some of their better students and with them the kind of parental advocacy that helps make schools stronger.
And what about the requirement in this proposal that to qualify, a child would have to have been in a public school for at least a year? Why wouldn't parents of children currently in private schools demand a similar tax credit? Or, would some parents put their kids in a public kindergarten and then take the private school benefit and opt out? All this would add uncertainty to school budgeting, the last thing public schools need at this point.
There are far more questions pertaining to this idea at this point than there are answers. That's not good enough for such a radical change.