Erase school lines?

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 2, 2014

RALEIGH — Next week, a legislative study committee will examine one of the more stunning proposals ever put before North Carolina lawmakers.
It would potentially allow any public school-age student in the state to attend any school anywhere in the state.
The legislator pushing the idea, state Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, a Republican from Concord, said that the proposal grew out of the study committee’s examination of schools in Douglas County, Colo.
That county and its school district have led the charge in the school choice movement, with the system itself operating charter schools, allowing blends of home schooling and public schooling, and providing taxpayer-funded vouchers for those attending private schools.
Like North Carolina’s, the Colorado county’s voucher program is being challenged in the courts.
Hartsell’s decision to cite the study of Douglas County schools is a bit odd for a few reasons.
First, the study from the legislature’s Program Evaluation Division hardly endorsed that county’s school operations. The study noted there’s been little testing to gauge effectiveness.
Second, the freedom for parents to put their children in any educational setting in Douglas County does not extend beyond county borders.
Finally, Douglas County, Colo., looks nothing like North Carolina. It is the eighth wealthiest county in the United States with median family income twice that of North Carolina’s. At 92 percent white, it is not racially diverse.
To believe that North Carolina, even by restricting transfers to schools within counties and thereby mirroring the Colorado County, would see the same results — whatever they might be — is unrealistic.
One thing that North Carolina could see, that Douglas County, Colo., will not, is more segregated schools.
That is only the tip of the iceberg if North Carolina were to basically abandon school districts and county district lines, allowing state dollars to follow the student as envisioned by the draft legislation. How could school systems plan for anything?
Yes, the proposal would allow systems to deny transfers based on the available room at schools. But who gets in and who doesn’t? Would metropolitan counties like Wake be flooded with applicants from neighboring counties?
The biggest losers might be exclusive private schools. If a parent could drive 10 minutes to drop their kids off at high-achieving Chapel Hill High School, why spend the tuition dollars to send their kids to exclusive Durham Academy?
And what about taxpayers of one county paying higher teacher supplements or for better school facilities, only to be subsidizing taxpayers in other counties?
The proposal looks like a solution in search of a problem, particularly in light of Republican lawmakers earlier efforts to expand charter schools.
Neither of my two boys attends the public school in their assigned district; they both attend magnet schools.
Public schools aren’t perfect, but engaged parents across North Carolina have choices.
Scott Mooneyham writes columns for Capitol Press Association.