Point of View

Two strikes at N.C.'s public schools

March 4, 2011 

— Two proposals now before the General Assembly call into question our state's commitment to high-quality public education.

House Bill 41, titled "Tax Fairness in Education," proposes to give a $2,500 annual tax credit to eligible individuals with children attending grades K through 12 "other than in a public school." Initial eligibility requires that the child have attended public school the immediately preceding year. In other words, the bill rewards parents who abandon the public school system.

Parents who choose never to give public education a chance are not ignored, however. The bill authorizes counties to appropriate up to $1,000 annually for children educated in any nonpublic school, including home schools. HB 41 rewards parents who have the means to choose private or home schooling over the public school system.

And while the House entices these families away from public schools, the Senate simultaneously moves toward sweeping deregulation of charter schools in Senate Bill 8, "No Cap on Charter Schools."

Although charters are funded partially by taxpayer money and technically are open to any student, many are racially and socioeconomically hypersegregated, exclusive programs that more closely resemble private schools. Charter schools encourage parents to abandon rather than engage in traditional public schools. They draw away the same families who are crucial to the school system's success and leave traditional public schools less diverse both racially and socioeconomically.

Educational research and experience have proven that isolation of high-poverty public schools often leads to failure. As communities struggle to develop high-performing, equitable public schools, why would any state legislator encourage families with means to divest from the system? Why would any lawmaker who purports to support progress in this state devise yet another method to siphon resources away from the public good?

As the U.S. Supreme Court explained in Brown v. Board of Education, providing public education is "perhaps the most important function of state and local governments," because of its "importance in a democratic society" in forming the "very foundation of good citizenship ... awakening the child to cultural values ... preparing him for later professional training, and ... helping him to adjust normally to his environment."

Just seven years ago, our state Supreme Court reminded us that "the children of North Carolina are our state's most valuable renewable resource" and that our state government has both the constitutional authority and responsibility to ensure that all children in our state have access to a high-quality public education.

Strong public schools benefit us all, whether or not we have children attending those schools. They create stable, safe and engaged communities, and children attending diverse public schools embrace a broader view of community. Communities with strong public schools enjoy economic benefits, as businesses often look for such areas when deciding where to locate.

Diverting state resources to "reimburse" families who choose not to take advantage of public resources is misguided public policy. Should we give a tax credit to people whose homes haven't caught fire or who don't visit state parks, to reimburse them that portion of their taxes that goes to fire departments or wildlife preservation?

As our public school systems face severe cutbacks, the motivation for these bills becomes more plain. They reflect a philosophy that values private, individual interests over the public good and a narrow view of community that undermines our ability, as a people, to participate fully in and add value to a global society. That the legislature's answer to the challenges facing public schools is to create more opportunities and financial rewards for parents who can afford to abandon them makes clear the actual goal: to undermine public education.

Elizabeth Haddix and Mark Dorosin are senior attorneys at the UNC Center for Civil Rights.

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