School reform takes big strides

Almost exactly 15 year ago, I wrote an education reform plan for the John Locke Foundation entitled “Reach for the STARS.” I argued that low levels of reading and math proficiency, particularly among poor and minority students, were robbing the next generation of opportunity and inhibiting our future growth.

The acronym “STARS” referred to five elements: standards, tenure, accounts, regulation, and scholarships. Specifically, I proposed that North Carolina 1) adopt more rigorous academic standards and independent, national tests; 2) abolish teacher tenure for new hires and phase it out for others; 3) create education savings accounts into which parents could deposit funds, receive tax credits for doing so, and then purchase a variety of educational services; 4) reduce state regulation of local schools by abolishing the statewide cap on charter schools and giving superintendents and principals more flexibility on budgets and pay policies; and 5) offer private-school scholarships for low-income students and those trapped in chronically low-performing public schools.

Now, 15 years later, I am pleased to report that North Carolina policymakers have moved in the right direction in four of these areas, and are currently considering action on the fifth one.

On standards and testing, North Carolina’s public schools have adopted the ACT battery of tests for all high-school students. Our new state tests for elementary and middle schools, while not nationally normed or truly independent, are more rigorous. They no longer produce measures of student proficiency wildly out of sync with the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams administered to a sample of fourth- and eighth-grade students every other year.

Like most states — and thanks in large measure to the Obama administration dangling “free” money in front of us — North Carolina adjusted its Standard Course of Study for public schools to the Common Core standards in reading and math. In some cases, this was a major improvement. In others, however, it proved to be either wrongheaded or at least controversial. The State Board of Education now has the opportunity to revise the reading and math standards to address the flaws. We’ll see if they do.

On tenure, North Carolina no longer offers it to newly hired teachers. But the idea of buying out the tenure of existing teachers didn’t turn out to be as useful, in part because the very teachers for which tenure protection is a management problem — the low-performing ones — are the least likely to give it up. Still, in the future superintendents and principals will have the flexibility they need to protect students from the ill effects of ineffective teachers.

On regulation, North Carolina has indeed abolished the charter-school cap and given local districts more budgetary flexibility. Some school systems have also been experimenting with differentiated pay and other innovative practices. Lawmakers are now studying ideas such as student-centered funding and pay-for-performance pilots. That’s fantastic.

And on school choice, North Carolina is giving private-school scholarships to thousands of low-income and special-needs students every year. Competition is just as valuable in education as it is in other sectors, including those such as health care where government funds play a significant role. Our voucher plan has withstood legal challenge and should continue to expand to help more families of modest means find the best educational match for their children.

Now it’s time to adopt the fifth plank in the reform plan: education savings accounts. While some propose giving parents direct grants of taxpayer money to fund their ESAs, I prefer giving all parents the ability to take tax deductions for ESA deposits and for at least some to take state tax credits for them. The money parents spend on their children’s education is no less an investment than the money they put in a 401k or IRA. It generates future taxable income, so it ought to be deductible from federal and state income taxes today (a state tax credit would essentially offset both federal and state taxes on the deposits).

North Carolina should continue to reach for the STARS. Our future depends on it.

John Locke Foundation chairman John Hood is the author of “Catalyst: Jim Martin and the Rise of North Carolina Republicans.”
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