School Choice: Good for Students…or Bad for Public Schools?

By Hadi Rahim

Nearly one-in-ten school-aged children in the United States are enrolled in private schools. The percentage of middle-class families enrolling their kids in private schools has been declining over the past several decades. Many educational activists who are unsatisfied with the public school system want to give middle and lower-income families the opportunity to enroll their kids in private schools. “School choice” is a policy many activists claim would improve the education system by allowing parents who can’t afford private school to enroll their children in a school that best fits their child’s needs.

The policy would use a voucher system. Parents would get to choose which school to enroll their child in. If they choose to enroll their child into a private school, their child’s share of the public education budget would go to the private school in place of tuition. Low and middle-income families would essentially be allowed to put their children through private schools for free.

Other methods of achieving school choice include tax credits, education savings accounts, and tax-credit scholarships which all allow for some type of direct or indirect monetary assistance for private school tuition. 

Proponents of school choice claim that a voucher or tax-credit system would allow for free-market competition in schools thus increasing quality. They also argue that it increases student equity.

Opponents of school choice claim the policy is just a scheme to dismantle the public school system. Since kids who are pulled out of the public school system would have their share of tax money taken out of the public school system, public schools would get fewer resources.  This would incentivize more parents to use the voucher system to enroll their children in private schools, thus leading to a cycle of more and more resources being pulled from public schools. Some research does show that voucher students have consistently worse academic performance than public school students.

State Representative Julie von Haefen (D-36) serves on the NC House Education committee. In an interview, she gave information on what the NC General Assembly is doing on this issue:

“The NCGA majority consistently passes budgets that maintain or increase the allocation to vouchers despite the existing allocation exceeding the actual demand for vouchers from parents. The typical justification offered by policymakers who support vouchers is that they provide minority and low-income children a “choice” to opt out of their local, under-resourced schools. The same legislators, however, have failed to increase public school funding per their constitutional mandate to provide every child in North Carolina with a sound, basic education.” 

She also included her own personal opinion on the matter: 

“North Carolina’s private school voucher program is grossly overfunded, harmful to student learning, an unnecessary diversion from inadequate public school funding, and irresponsibly unaccountable. Despite endless increases to the available funding for the voucher program, including $500,000 to advertise vouchers on behalf of private schools in the 2021-2023 budget, policymakers have exempted private schools from oversight, academic standards, state testing requirements, and even teacher licensure requirements. These are public funds that have little or no public accountability. I firmly believe North Carolina’s students and taxpayers would be better served if the NCGA were to uphold its constitutional duty and fully fund the Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan to bring our public schools up to the standard our children deserve.”

Studies have shown that private school students consistently outperform public school students on standardized tests. Some scholars have argued that this is because of outside factors like the education of a student’s parents rather than the private school itself. It can also be attributed to the fact that private schools can be selective in who they choose to admit. 

Regardless, this issue will continue to be a controversial topic for years to come. 

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