In North Carolina, Panel Discusses Growing Role of School Choice

Staying Ahead Carolina, a nonpartisan group, recently organized an education forum at UNC Charlotte Center City to discuss choices, challenges and changes in public education. The forum was attended by a throng of people who say that school choice plays a growing role in the quest to educate all students in the Charlotte region in North Carolina — and the nation as a whole is paying attention.

The participants included Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) Superintendent Heath Morrison, Eddie Goodall of the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association and state Rep. Rob Bryan, R-Mecklenburg, co-sponsor of the state's Opportunity Scholarship Act, which will provide income-based vouchers to pay private school tuition starting in 2014, writes Ann Doss Helms of Charlotte Observer.

All participants, including Bill Anderson of the nonprofit advocacy group MeckEd, agreed that families want high-quality choices for their children. They, however, have different opinions on the benefits and drawbacks of North Carolina's options.

"Parents like choice. That shows up on every survey, across the state and across the country," Morrison said. "We have to make sure that there's quality as well as quantity."

According to Morrison, CMS will make sure each student has at least two high-quality options within CMS, including a neighborhood school and a growing menu of magnets. He praised the state legislature for lifting the silly 100-school cap on charter schools, which are public schools run by independent boards.

Traditional public schools and charters are required to give students state exams and report the results. Morrison is not satisfied with the decision to let private schools take tax money without having to participate in the same accountability system.

He said that the $4,200 N.C. Opportunity Scholarships being offered for students who qualify for lunch subsidies won't cover tuition at most Charlotte-area private schools.

Bryan said public money will be only a small portion of a private school's budget, and said he expects schools and community donors to help low-income students attend. "Parents are the ultimate form of accountability," he said.

Morrison likes the option for CMS to create its own charter schools, which would have more flexibility than traditional schools on teacher pay and school calendars. Currently, state law does not allow this.

Morrison's idea was backed by Bryan and Goodall.

Bryan said research has proven that vouchers in other states improve public education, and said he'd share that research with anyone who wants it. Morrison said he'd met with Bryan recently and asked for that research, but he hasn't gotten it. Bryan countered that Morrison had also failed to share research he has cited.

Citing CMS lawyer Jonathan Sink's article published in Charlotte Observer, an audience member said that school districts should have flexibility to set their own calendars. Sink's piece contends that high schools could benefit from an earlier opening date that would place midyear exams before Christmas break.

Answering the question whether the state would be willing to modify the law restricting when school years can begin and end, Morrison said that if he could get that flexibility, he could provide academic gains by reducing the long summer break that often leads to learning loss. "Give us flexibility and we'll give you improvement with no extra money," he said.

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