Saturday, July 25, 2015

A Victory for Choice and Competition in North Carolina



Earlier this week the North Carolina Supreme Court struck a blow for choice and competition in K-12 Education. In Hart et al. v. State of North Carolina and Richardson et al. v. North Carolina,  the Court rejected challenges to the state's Opportunity Scholarship Program in a well-reasoned opinion by Chief Justice Martin.  Like a similar program in Washington D.C. previously discussed on this blog, the program provides financial assistance --- $4,200 per student --- to low income families who choose to enroll their children in certain private schools.  Sometimes called "vouchers," such scholarships implement  the vision of Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman, who articulated the powerful case for educational choice in his now-famous essay "The Role of Government in Education," reproduced here at the website of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

North Carolina imposes various regulatory requirements on its non-public schools.  (See here).  In addition, schools that enroll students who receive such assistance must employ nationally-recognized standardized tests annually in the third grade and afterwards to evaluate the progress of students in "grammar, reading, spelling and mathematics" and submit the results of such tests to the State's Educational Assistance Authority. ("Authority")  Such schools must also provide the parents or guardians of such students with annual progress reports, including the results of standardized tests and inform the Authority of the graduation rates of such students.  A school that enrolls 25 or more such students must report the aggregate standardized test scores of such students to the Authority, and such aggregate scores are available to the public.     Schools that enroll such students cannot discriminate based on race, color or national origin.  Moreover, the Authority must annually retain an independent research organization to assess the "learning gains or losses" of students who receive such grants as well as the "competitive effects" of the program upon the learning outcomes of students who remain in public schools.  (See N.C.G.S. Section 115C-562.1-7, found here).  

The Authority selected about 2,300 students from more than 5,500 applicants to participate in the program in its first year, at a total cost to the state of $10.8 million.

Plaintiffs, backed by the North Carolina ACLU, raised numerous objections to program.  Most notably, the plaintiffs claimed that the spending authorized by the program did not serve a "public purpose" because some of the schools in which beneficiaries enrolled are not accredited by one or more accrediting agencies and/or employed some teachers that are not certified.  See North Carolina Constitution Article V, Section 2(1) ("The power of taxation shall be exercised in a just and equitable manner, for public purposes only, and shall never be surrendered, suspended, or contracted away.") Plaintiffs also made a related claim that the program failed to "guard and maintain" the privilege of education guaranteed by Article I, Section 15 of the state constitution.  Indeed, a lower court had ruled that the "General Assembly fails the children of North Carolina when they are sent with taxpayer money to private schools that have no legal obligation to teach them anything." (Emphasis added).

The North Carolina Supreme Court properly rejected these and other claims.  As explained above, the Opportunity Scholarship Program contains numerous features, including annual testing, reports of the results to the state, and annual progress reports to parents and reports on graduation rates that enhance the accountability of private schools to families and the public.  The most important such mechanism, however, is market competition, the institution on which free societies ordinarily rely to ensure the production of high quality products and services.  Such competition, bolstered by background rules of contract and tort law, includes rivalry among various private schools as well as rivalry between private schools and their public counterparts, including the State's 147 Public Charter Schools.  Contrary to the implication of the district court's reasoning quoted above, no North Carolina children "are sent" by the state to a private school. Instead, parents or guardians voluntarily choose such schools over the free public school, and any public charter school, the child is entitled to attend.  Many middle class families already have sufficient financial resources to choose private schools for their children, and the U.S. Constitution guarantees them that right.  The Opportunity Scholarship Program increases the number of competitive options available to low income families, thereby facilitating their participation in the same educational markets, and attendance at the same schools, that middle class families have enjoyed for decades. Absent some substantial market failure, and none is apparent, there is no reason to believe that educational outcomes will suffer.  Organizations such as the ACLU, which purports to stand for "choice" and even invokes the Statue of Liberty on its logo, would do well to reconsider prior opposition to such programs, opposition that, when successful, entrenches anti-liberty state monopolies subsidized by the taxpayers, many of whom would prefer to send their children to private schools.

To be sure, accreditation and professional certification can sometimes improve the quality of products offered by some market actors.  Any such improvements come with countervailing costs, however. Such costs include the out-of-pocket cost of compliance, the cost of monitoring such compliance, the reduction in innovation resulting from regulatory mandates, and the exclusion of otherwise qualified individuals from the occupation in question.  See generally Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, Ch. 9 (1962).  At the same time, many markets for complex products function quite well without such governmental intrusion.   No certification agency decides what apps Apple will include on its latest I-Phone or whether and how Amazon will attempt to compete with Wal-Mart.  Indeed, Wake Forest University, founded in 1834, was first accredited in 1921. Davidson, founded in 1837, was first accredited in 1917.  So far as this blogger is aware, faculty who have taught at such institutions were never "certified" by any independent body.  It's hard to imagine that these institutions did not serve "public purposes" until 1921 and 1917, respectively.

Presumably the North Carolina Legislature understood the role that markets play in ensuring educational quality and took account of the costs and benefits of additional regulatory intrusion.   The legislature obviously decided that, on balance, the Opportunity Scholarship Program enhanced the public welfare by facilitating individual choice, bolstering educational competition and enhancing educational outcomes. Indeed, the State has long declined to impose stringent regulatory oversight on its private schools, trusting market competition to assure quality, and the Opportunity Scholarship Program imposes additional regulatory requirements on those schools that accept scholarship recipients.  As Chief Justice Martin eloquently explained for the Court, this determination was a quintessentially legislative judgment and, of course, subject to legislative revision as new facts about the operation of the program become available.  Hopefully the Court's decision will clear the way for an expansion of the program and thus additional reliance upon choice and competition in the provision of education in the Tar Heel State.