School Choice Is Saving Money in North Carolina

Published January 1, 2009

School choice is cutting costs for taxpayers in North Carolina, according to a top state official, as parents of more than 169,000 students send their children to nonpublic schools or teach them at home. Their decision to forego the tax-funded public education is saving their fellow citizens more than $1 billion every year … and they’re doing it without the benefit of any tax credits or other encouragement from the state.

North Carolina’s public school system serves 1.46 million students. Every year it spends about $9.5 billion in state and federal money and another $2.7 billion in local funding. Capital spending costs another $1.4 billion.

By some estimates, nearly 40 cents of every revenue dollar in North Carolina goes to K-12 education, making it the largest category in the state’s $21.4 billion budget.

According to statistics released by the North Carolina Division of Non-Public Education (DNPE), which monitors homeschoolers and traditional private and religious schools, some 10.4 percent of school-aged children in North Carolina were educated outside public school classrooms in the 2007-08 school year. About 98,000 students attend conventional nonpublic schools, while more than 70,000 are homeschooled.

$1.3B Saved in 2006-07

DNPE’s director, Rod Helder, told Carolina Journal last year the savings to the state in fiscal year 2006-07 were $1.3 billion, reflecting higher per-pupil expenses in the public schools and continuous growth in the number of nonpublic school students. Since the 2004-05 school year, the number of students being homeschooled has increased almost 22 percent, while public school enrollments increased by 6.6 percent.

“You see how much money the public schools did not have to spend,” Helder told Carolina Journal.

Similar Story in Nevada

The Nevada Policy Research Institute studied the effect of empty seats in existing Nevada schools and differences in per-pupil expenditures from county to county. Frank Schnorbus, president of the Nevada Homeschool Network, said the study was commissioned to address allegations home education was somehow taking money out of the public schools. State officials were not interested in verifying the charge, so the network contracted for the study itself.

The institute found each additional pupil enrolled in the existing public schools cost more than the per-pupil average, Schnorbus said, so keeping students in nonpublic schools was saving even more money than the homeschool network originally thought.

Public Education Profits

“The notion that homeschool children somehow ‘cost’ the public schools turns reality on its head,” the institute’s authors wrote. “In truth, the situation could be more accurately characterized as one in which Nevada’s public education establishment profits from unwarranted taxes on parents who choose to exercise their parental rights.”

Schnorbus said the Nevada study quelled complaints in the legislature. “I haven’t heard that argument any more—not once,” he said.

There is a cost in keeping children out of public schools, but it is borne by families and private entities. Several studies have found homeschoolers spend $500 to $600 a year for each child’s books and materials, and typically in the context of single-income families, as usually one parent gives up an outside career to stay home and teach.

Private school tuition ranges widely. Joe Haas of the North Carolina Christian Schools Association said the group’s member schools’ fees were sometimes lower than $3,000 a year, reflecting their view of education as an outreach of the local church.

“There’s a higher reason than money for operating a Christian school,” Haas said. “In our segment, there is more of a ministry orientation.”

Private high schools, by contrast, sometimes charge tuition greater than what’s charged by nearby colleges. Financial aid is sometimes available, and scholarship organizations occasionally offer funding for home educators as well, but the financial cost to families can be high.

Numbers Grow Without Incentives

Perhaps the most interesting facet of North Carolina’s situation is the lack of any public incentive to pursue nonpublic alternatives for school.

“A great percentage of our students are in our schools because their parents believe it is their responsibility to see to the training of their children,” said Haas. His organization takes a cautious approach toward government programs, he said.

Similarly, the state homeschool organization, North Carolinians for Home Education, cautioned members recently that participating in North Carolina’s new online public high school program might change their legal status and compromise their independence as homeschoolers.

Given a workable legal climate and freedom to make the choice, the growing numbers of families who choose a privately funded educational system are reducing the cost of public education for everyone else.

Hal Young ([email protected]) writes about government in North Carolina and is a regular contributor to Carolina Journal in Raleigh, North Carolina.

For more information …

“Homeschooling in Nevada: The Budgetary Impact,” John T. Wenders, Ph.D. and Andrea D. Clements, Ph.D., Nevada Policy Research Institute, February 1, 2005: