Point of View

Why NC public schools still best choice for parents, students

January 27, 2014 

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Public schools, charter schools and private schools give North Carolina parents many choices for their child’s education. Along with these choices comes a whole lot of marketing, most of it not supported by facts.

All parents want schools that meet the needs of their child while helping all children get a strong start in life. When choosing the right school, parents should keep in mind the overwhelming evidence that traditional public schools remain the best choice.

Traditional public schools tend to have better teachers. North Carolina public schools have more nationally board-certified teachers than any state in the nation. Board certification is not merely a credential. It represents a level of professional development that translates into measurable academic gains for kids. By contrast, charter schools in North Carolina require only 50 percent of their teachers to be licensed to teach, let alone board-certified. Private schools have no set requirements on credentialed teachers.

Public schools can offer richer instruction through a wider variety of classes and programs that meet each student’s interests and needs. There are enough students to justify hiring a physics teacher, enough athletes to field a football team and enough musicians to have a band. Public schools offer programs such as STEM, IB or foreign languages and specialized instruction for those with disabilities.

Traditional public schools also tend to educate a wider range of students with more diverse interests and talents, offering better preparation for the real world by teaching children how to get along with people from all walks of life. Unfortunately, the proliferation of charter and private schools, especially in a smaller district, can mean that course offerings in any one school are diminished, diversity is lost and efforts are duplicated across schools, which strains available resources, including the labor pool of qualified teachers.

Traditional public schools have clearer instructional standards and more meaningful accountability. Public schools don’t follow fads; they follow evidence about what works. They are also held accountable to public standards and must achieve measurable results. Private schools have no public accountability for the standards they set, the results they achieve or their practices for admission, discipline or expulsion. In North Carolina, this lack of accountability holds even for private schools that will accept public money through the new private school voucher program.

A common misperception is that private schools offer better academic quality than traditional public schools. The facts say otherwise. A new study of mathematics instruction says that public elementary schools outperform private schools once advantages associated with academic success – money and highly educated parents – are accounted for.

Another common misperception is that educational innovation is not possible in traditional, noncharter public schools. On the contrary, traditional public schools are fully capable of innovation and creativity, especially when given adequate financial support. Magnet schools are a type of traditional public school, and they have demonstrated tremendous creativity. In Wake County, where the magnet application period began this week, there is an array of national award-winning choices, from Washington Gifted and Talented Magnet to Farmington Woods International Baccalaureate Magnet to Combs Leadership Magnet and more.

Traditional public schools have a track record and built-in safeguards that make them a more trustworthy choice over charter and private schools. The most recent research shows that charters on average perform no better than traditional public schools and in some cases do worse. Lax accountability for North Carolina’s charter schools sets the stage for numerous problematic outcomes, including financial mismanagement, subpar education for students, huge problems with pushing out students over minor disciplinary problems and increased racial and socioeconomic isolation. There are too many examples from other states where students who are unhappy with their charter school choice end up back in traditional public schools further behind and no better off.

Choice is good, until you make the wrong choice. Parents have too much at stake in their child’s education to confuse new with better and improved. Beware of slick packaging, promises of outcomes not backed by a track record and choices that actually offer less enriched instruction rather than more. The facts and history favor the schools that moved North Carolina from a largely rural state to a global center for education, research, banking, biomedical innovation, sports and high-tech manufacturing: North Carolina’s public schools.

Karey Harwood, Ph.D., is executive director of Public Schools First NC. Patty Williams is the group’s director of communications.

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