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Republicans push school choice

RALEIGH — With control of the legislature, Republicans have already made clear that they’ll leave their mark on North Carolina public schools and public education.

Just how big a mark, and whether the changes they seek will prove more positive than negative, remains to be seen.

A week into the new legislative session, Senate Republicans began moving a bill to lift the 100-school cap on charter schools, which are organized privately but receive state money and oversight. Over in the House, Majority Leader Paul “Skip” Stam, a Wake County Republican, filed a bill to provide the parents of some private school or home-schooled children with a $2,500 tax credit.

After years of resisting, the state’s education establishment — led by the teacher’s union, the N.C. Association of Educators — sees the writing on the wall. They’ve stopped opposing the lifting of the charter school cap, even as they argue that it should be lifted gradually.

Any gradual removal isn’t likely.

The legislation filed in the Senate eliminates the cap and sets up a new commission outside the Department of Public Instruction to oversee the schools. Counties could also provide construction money for charter schools, an option not allowed under current law.

Stam’s bill would further push the boundaries of school choice. He wants to hand out tax credits to parents who have had children in public school and then move them into a private school or begin home-schooling them.

The legislation limits the credit to couples with taxable income of $100,000 or less or a single parent making $60,000 or less.

On the charter school front, Republicans can make a strong case that the 100-school limit is arbitrary, unpopular and stifles the educational innovation that charter schools were expected to provide.

The state’s “experiment” with the schools is now 14 years old. Many of the schools are successful.  

Stam’s tax credit, though, does something that a lifting of the charter cap doesn’t: It funnels taxpayer dollars to private schools with little state oversight.

Stam argues that the bill would save the state money because only students previously enrolled in public schools could take advantage of it.

Sure, that’s the case now. How long before he or another legislator asks that the credit be expanded to more private school children?

And once the credit is in place, how many parents will send their children to a public school for one semester before enrolling them in private school with the sole intent of becoming eligible for the tax rebate?

In their push for school reform, Republicans need to avoid becoming the founders of dual school systems, one for the haves and another for the have-nots.

North Carolina won’t thrive economically without figuring out better ways to educate poor children, without putting more of those kids on a path to productive careers.

Republicans can make their mark by figuring out how to do that, or they can make a mark by weakening public schools and dumping those kids there.

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