Two bills making their way through the State Legislature have the potential to dramatically change public education in North Carolina. The first is a public charter school bill that is likely to pass. It will raise the cap on the number of charter schools in the state and make other changes that would make it easier to open and operate a charter school.
The second is called House Bill 41 – the Tax Fairness in Education Bill. It would give families a tax credit if they choose to pull their children out of public school and enroll them in a private school. It’s a possibility that has launched a bitter partisan fight.
Thales Academy sits at the end of a commercial development, behind a salon and an animal hospital. The building looks like it could be home to an insurance agency or an accounting firm, except for the brand new playground equipment beyond the parking lot.
Thales is a private school. This one in Wake Forest is identical to the building in Apex, right down to the faux gothic columns in the hallway and the murals of the founding fathers on the walls. It’s bright, airy, and warm.
It’s exactly what Jill Ketterman wanted for her two kids:
"I taught in public school and I swore I wouldn’t have my kids go to public school."
Ketterman is standing in the school’s busy main hallway. Thales has no gym, no busses, and no cafeteria. So she and other parents come in at lunch time to manage the classes while the students eat in the rooms so the teachers can eat together in the faculty lounge.
"Just the atmosphere, it feels like family when I walk in here. And I really like that. I come in and volunteer a lot. I never feel like I’m not welcome. It’s just a lovely school."
Parents like Ketterman like Thales for other reasons, too. Some like the de-emphasis on testing, others like to know they won’t be reassigned to different public schools. At about $5,000 a year, it’s relatively cheap for a private school, and according to Ketterman, the classic curriculum and emphasis on what she calls “traditional values” is also important:
"Mr Luddy has such a strong vision. You clearly know what you are going to get when you come here and that is what we are getting."
Mr. Luddy is Bob Luddy, the school’s founder and chairman of the board. 30 years ago, he launched a kitchen ventilation company with $1300 and a handful of employees. Captive Aire now boasts more than $200 million in annual sales and employs 750.
At an age when many might be thinking about ways to enjoy the fruits of their labors, Luddy has embarked on a mission to transform education:
"I find it to be very interesting and rewarding to be able to do something for these children who otherwise would not have these opportunities."
Luddy says the public schools are failing. He ran for the Wake County School Board in 1997, spending tens of thousands of dollars of his own money. He lost. The next year, he opened a charter school, Franklin Academy, in a single building with a few dozen students. It now ranks as one of the best schools in the state – it just opened a $9 million high school, and has a long waiting list.
"A lot of people say you shouldn’t talk of education as a business, but the reality is, it is a business."
Luddy’s business plan for education is the same as it has been for Captive-Aire: keep overhead low and deliver quality to customers. There are very few support and administrative personnel in his schools. There are no sports. Thales doesn’t take children with special needs, as they are too expensive to educate.
He says Thales is not quite breaking even, but he envisions hundreds of Thales Academies, and he says they will eventually get out of the red.
"My idea was that parents should have hundreds of choices. Whereas currently if they go to the public school system, they have 1 maybe 2. They have precious few choices. Once you open up competition, the choices will be abundant."
Luddy’s business approach doesn’t appeal to everyone…
"The public school system is quite different from a business. Number one, you are dealing with children, not commodities. Let’s hope we never think of our children as commodities."
Jo Ann Norris is the Executive Director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina. She’s also a former state teacher of the year. Her group has previously opposed lifting the cap on charter schools, and is now fighting against giving a tax credit to families who pull their children from public school and take them to private school.
She says applying a business model to schools would leave too many children behind.
"I think the public school as an institution has a far greater responsibility to good government, if you will, than any business could ever have."
Virtually all high level public school personnel are joining Norris in opposing the bill. They all say it will take financial resources from the public schools, leaving a system where the “haves” will be in private academies, and the “have nots” will be in public schools.
Luddy has donated tens of thousands of dollars to national and local republicans, fighting what he calls the education bureaucracy with his own political cash.
He was the single largest donor to the four Republicans who won seats on the Wake County School Board in 2009. Luddy also gave $4,000 to current state House Republican Leader Paul Stam. Stam is the sponsor of the Tax Fairness in Education Bill. Before he introduced the tax credit bill, Stam explained at an Americans for Prosperity event that terminology would play a role in gaining support for it.
If the tax credit bill passes, Stam says tens of thousands of middle class families who currently have children in public schools would take that credit and move their kids to private academies - like Thales.
Tim Tyson is a historian, activist, and author.
"I am not able to look into Bob Luddy’s heart. We can not judge people’s heart, we can only scrutinize their actions. When somebody stands to profit a great deal by something and they’re putting a large amount of money toward that, it certainly looks a lot like an investment. It appears to me like an investment in the failure of public schools."
Tyson is one of several people who have been arrested at Wake County School Board meetings in the past year, fighting against the board’s decision to do away with the diversity policy. He’s also a prominent Civil Rights historian. He says the last time the state offered tax credits for private school parents was in the 1950s in the aftermath of the Brown versus Board of Education decision, when the state came up with the Pearsall Plan and offered white families a tax credit so that their children wouldn’t have to go to school with black kids.
"Now, nobody wants to be known as a segregationist. Even if they pursue segregationist policies. Even though they sling segregationist slogans. Nobody wants to be a segregationist because they know it is a moral scar. That those people were on the wrong side of history."
Luddy says he has never heard of the Pearsall Plan. And he makes a distinction in this case…
"I don’t think there’s very many segregationists in our society today. The idea is to give people choices. And if those choices lead to a higher level of minorities in a particular school or in a particular room, than I think that’s fine, if the choice was made by the parents. If the choice is made by bureaucrats, than I think it’s not fine."
Everyone with an interest in the future of public education - Tyson, Luddy, public school officials - are all trying to win the “hearts and minds” of the same group – middle class parents, who make up the backbone of any school.
Parents like Jennifer Turner. She’s sitting in the hallway of Thales Academy while her daughter is back with a teacher, going through an educational assessment that will decide if she is admissible to kindergarten. Turner says they are considering sending their daughter to one of three schools: Thales, Franklin Academy – the charter school, or Jones Dairy Elementary, the traditional public school in their neighborhood.
"I don’t feel like I’m abandoning it, and even if we ended up there I’d be happy to send her there. It’s not like it’s a last resort. It’s just if we can give her a little bit more, if she can get a little bit more from school, than I’d rather do that."
Turner says a tax credit wouldn’t make a big difference - they will make the decision based on what’s best for their daughter. That choice, both simple and complicated, made by thousands of parents across North Carolina over the next few years, will determine what schools look like for everyone else.