Choices and How Parents Make Them
May 21, 2013

Today, I spoke to the House Education Committee regarding HB 944 which would provide “opportunity scholarships” for students to attend private schools with public taxpayer support. Here are my comments to committee members:

I am June Atkinson State Superintendent of Public Instruction. The views I am about to express do not necessarily reflect the State Board of Education as a board or as individuals.

I am a strong believer in public education and its benefits to our democracy. I also respect the decisions of parents when they choose to send their children to a private school or to home school them. I also believe that the bill before you will not, in reality, help the students it is intended to help. This bill does not include the necessary accountability measures to ensure that our taxpayer dollars are achieving better outcomes for our state’s children. It does not require that adequate information be provided to parents for making choices.

If this bill is designed to help parents have more choices, please know that this bill does not provide for parents to have what they need to make an informed choice. Public schools are successful schools in North Carolina, and we have many years worth of publicly available student data to demonstrate that performance on measures ranging from student academic growth to high school graduation rates. If parents want to compare the performance of their local public schools to the performance of private schools, there isn’t much to compare.

First, the General Assembly requires that all public schools be graded A-F. If that grading scale is appropriate for public schools, then it is appropriate to apply the same scale to all private schools receiving taxpayers' dollars to educate children. Each school receiving taxpayers' dollars should be graded in the same manner in order for parents to have the necessary information to make a wise decision or choice.  If a grading scale of A-F is good enough for public schools, then it should be good enough for private schools.

Second, the General Assembly requires that a school's grade be reported to the public on its website and on the NC School Report Card website. This proposed bill requires private schools receiving taxpayers' dollars merely to report its standardized test scores to an authority without adequate public information available; only aggregate test data are reported (see page 4, lines 26-28).  If reporting a grade to taxpayers and parents is good enough for public schools, then it should be good enough for private schools.

Third, private schools in North Carolina are required to give standardized tests at grades 3, 6, 9 and 11. Public school students must take end of grade tests in grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 and three end-of-course tests in high school. Their scores are reported annually.

According to this bill, private schools choose their own standardized tests without meaningful reporting to the public or to taxpayers. This does not provide parents with enough information to make a good decision on behalf of their children, especially when a private school may choose a little known or invalid test.

Other states that offer choice opportunities handle this situation differently. Let’s look at Indiana. Indiana requires private schools to use the same A-F grading scale and testing that is required of its public schools. This gives parents a strong, comparable tool to use as they make the all-important decision about where to educate their children. Indiana also does site visits of non-public schools.

Parents say, as one parent said yesterday, if my child is not doing well in reading, I want my child to be in a small class so the teacher can pay more attention to my child.  I wish that all students would have that benefit, both in public and private schools.

If I were a parent making this all-important choice, I would want to know about the performance and teacher quality of the schools I considered for my child. I would want the same information from the private schools that I could gather from the public schools. 

North Carolina does not have a surplus of funds. I cannot help but think about what could be added to the "choice" in public schools if the same amount of money being provided for opportunity scholarships were available for public schools to expand services and public school choices for students who are struggling and need extra assistance.

As stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars, the General Assembly should want parents to have comparable data about public and private school performance to make wise decisions.

I want all of our students to be successful and to attend schools that deliver the outcomes we all want for our children. I believe that all schools receiving public dollars should be accountable with the same measures, the same grading scale, and the same reporting standards. I ask that you please consider the points I have made as you deliberate about this bill. At the least, let's aim for consistency. What's good enough for students in one type of publicly supported school should be good enough for students in another type of publicly supported school.

June St. Clair Atkinson
State Superintendent