Not on Our Watch!

1 May 2005

by Hal Young


In mid-March, Governor Mike Easley proposed to make private, Christian and homeschools accountable to the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI). As soon as the information was verified, NCHE sent out an alert, and homeschool families responded by the thousands. The public reaction brought a delay in action; as this Greenhouse Report goes to print, legislators and members of the executive branch are reconsidering the proposal, while homeschoolers and the private school community stand by to respond.

Let me give you some background on this issue. Prior to 1979, private schools were supervised by the Office of Non-Public Schools within DPI and were required to meet DPI standards including teacher certification, textbook approval and class size. The growing Christian school movement in the 1970s argued that the state should not interfere in the educational decisions of religious organizations. In 1977, DPI filed a class action lawsuit against a number of Christian schools who had objected. The legislative proposals that followed prompted so great a response from the public that the General Assembly agreed that private schools should be allowed to make their own choices in the areas of teacher qualifications, curriculum and graduation requirements.

At the same time, the Office of Non-Public Schools was moved from DPI to the Governor’s Office and renamed the Division of Non-Public Education (DNPE); it moved again, to the Department of Administration, in 1998. DNPE’s job today is to monitor private schools’ compliance with the law, whether they are traditional schools or homeschools. It has authority to see that schools are listed with the state, that the proper testing and record keeping are done each year, and in the case of traditional private schools, that fire, safety and health inspections are maintained.

There is a tremendous difference between the two organizations—DPI and DNPE. With a budget of almost $6 billion, DPI oversees all public schools in the state. Its task extends beyond academics. Public schools are expected to provide extracurricular and recreational activities, health and social services, nutrition and local transportation for up to 1.3 million students every day. Taxpayers provide over $6,700 per student annually, or 42 cents of every tax dollar spent, to support K-12 education and its ancillary services. Most parents in the state choose this system, and while they have little say in the activities of their schools, the state through DPI is accountable to parents and taxpayers alike for the outcome of that expenditure.

On the other hand, DNPE is a monitoring agency, not a service provider. The US Supreme Court has affirmed that parents have the right to choose alternate methods to educate their children. With private schools, state regulation is not needed because parents have much more influence, can easily move their students if necessary and ultimately, have the ability to vote with their money! When given the choice, parents naturally seek out the best options for their children.

There is ample evidence that this approach has worked where it counts—in children's achievement, as reflected in high test scores and well rounded lives—for twenty-six years. Academic results in homeschools, as measured by nationally standardized test scores, are consistently high—in the seventieth and eightieth percentiles nationwide. Homeschool students are also much more likely to be actively involved in their community.

Research has shown that scores don't improve with added regulation or decline in the absence of strict requirements. Nationwide studies of other states have shown that empirical results and student success in private and homeschools are not a function of regulation, and more regulation will not improve the already successful results in North Carolina.

If DPI’s control had been allowed to continue, the difference between public and private schools would have been essentially erased, except for the out-of-pocket expense to parents in private education. As the homeschool movement grew, the independence won by the private schools made our freedom from overregulation possible. The liberty that the current statute allows covers equally the family whose educational decisions reflect their religious beliefs and the non-traditional household seeking a deeper, broader or simply freer educational experience for their children.

From a financial viewpoint, Secretary of Administration Gwynn Swinson says that parents who provide private (including home) education for their children are saving the state $980 million annually. This doesn't include local savings on school construction or education bonds at the municipal level. Home and private school families pay the same taxes that all citizens pay, providing a net benefit to the public system. Since every student in alternate education saves the state money, a better a cost-saving strategy might be to offer incentives for parents to privately educate their children, rather than asking DPI to take on new responsibilities.

This proposed change in our regulatory structure has no basis in academic achievement, in financial advantage to the state or in needed accountability. Home and private schools are no threat or burden to the state, but instead are an asset to the liberty, diversity and productivity of North Carolina graduates. Asking DPI to oversee private and homeschools is unfair to them and to the new schools they would be serving. It's like mixing apples and oranges—DPI needs to continue care of the apples, while DNPE continues care of the oranges. Private schools of all types should be left to continue the job they have elected, without interference from state bureaucracy.

GREENHOUSE is NCHE's flagship publication. 

GREENHOUSE magazine is published fall and spring plus an annual graduate issue in May. GREENHOUSE is mailed to NCHE members.