More than 280,000 N.C. students
choose charter, private, homeschools
As North Carolina nears the 20th anniversary of the law that opened the door to public charter schools in the state, 82,000 students are enrolled now in charter schools. They make up a large chunk of the more than 280,000 N.C. students choosing nontraditional education options.
The John Locke Foundation is highlighting these and other statistics while celebrating National School Choice Week, Jan. 24-30.
The celebration also included a speech yesterday from the head of the school choice advocacy group Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. PEFNC President Darrell Allison spoke at noon at the John Locke Foundation office in Raleigh.
“Whether they’re attending public charter schools, private schools, or homeschools, more and more students in North Carolina have access now to education options that meet their needs better than the traditional district public schools,” said Dr. Terry Stoops, JLF Director Research and Education Studies. “National School Choice Week marks a great time to highlight changes in public policy that will pay dividends for the state, its families, and its kids for years to come.”
“As I travel across North Carolina, parents, educators, and community members in all parts of their state make it clear to me that they want their children to have the best possible learning experience,” added Lindalyn Kakadelis, JLF Director of Education Outreach. “Increased access to school choice is making it possible for more people to meet that goal.”
North Carolina took a major step toward boosting school choice in 1996. The N.C. General Assembly approved the state’s first public charter school law that year. Twenty years later, the state’s 158 existing public charter schools enroll more than 82,000 students.
“If you grouped all charter schools together, they would form the state’s third-largest school district,” Stoops said. “Charter schools educate 5 percent of the state’s public school population today. And enrollment has roughly doubled in just the past five years.”
Charter schools operate in 59 of North Carolina’s 100 counties. As many as 16 new charter schools will open in August, Stoops said.
“Nearly half of the state’s charter schools received an A or B performance grade in 2015, compared to less than one-third of traditional district schools meeting that mark,” Stoops said. “Five of the 20 top-performing schools in the state are charter schools.”
Charter schools have achieved this success despite spending about $1,000 less per student than district schools, Stoops said. Charters also maximize the amount of personnel money spent on teachers, with 65 percent of charter school employees working as teachers. Just 54 percent of district school employees are teachers.
The most recent additions to North Carolina’s school choice menu are opportunity scholarships for low-income students and grants for students with special education needs. Both programs help parents who would struggle otherwise to afford private-school options for their children.
“Over $5 million in opportunity scholarships are helping more than 2,500 students from low-income families this school year,” Stoops said. “Many more could be helped. More than 7,700 students applied for the scholarships during the last application period. Meanwhile, another 770 students benefit this year from the special-needs grant.”
Outside of the public school system, North Carolina has the 17th-largest private school population in the United States, Stoops said. “Last year more than 97,000 students enrolled in North Carolina’s 720 private schools,” he said. “Private-school enrollment has jumped 5 percent in the last 10 years, and there are more private schools operating in the state now than at any time in the past 25 years.”
The state’s homeschool population has nearly doubled since 2004, Stoops said. “According to one estimate, North Carolina has the third-largest homeschool population in the United States, trailing only Texas and California.”
“The official count of N.C. homeschoolers eclipsed the 100,000 mark in 2015 and now stands at 107,000 students,” Stoops said. “Every county has homeschoolers, and no county had fewer than 28 homeschools last year.”
National School Choice Week should help remind state policymakers that they can take additional steps to expand parents’ choices, Stoops said. “Affirm North Carolina’s commitment to families with disadvantaged and special-needs children by investing greater resources in private-school scholarship programs,” he said. “Build on the success of North Carolina’s public charter schools by ensuring that applicable laws and regulations are fair, accommodating, and constructive.”
“Strengthen our state’s virtual schooling options by expanding access and enrollment,” Stoops added. “Safeguard the right of parents to educate their children at home by protecting them from intrusive and unnecessary regulatory requirements.”
The preceding article was written by Dr. Terry Stoops, Director of Research and Education Studies at the John Locke Foundation. It first was first published on Monday, January 26, 2016 and reappears with the gracious permission of the author. Click here to view and here to listen to Dr. Terry Stoops discussing National School Choice Week. For more information, please contact Dr. Terry Stoops at (919) 828-3876 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or email@example.com. For more articles on school choice, click here.
Parents, Students Tout
Benefits of Opportunity Scholarships
Ten year-old Donovan Coates-St. Remy loves science club, geography club, and his Windows 10 ThinkPad. He would have none of these things if not for North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, a tuition voucher system that provides funding so he can attend Cathedral School, a private Roman Catholic institution in Raleigh.
“This year is our first year with the Opportunity Scholarship Program,” said Donovan’s mother, Betti Coates-St. Remy. “I didn’t really know about it until I’d read up on it. When we applied [for the scholarship] I was like, ‘if we get in, we’re definitely doing this.’ And we did. We were just so excited.”
Donovan attended a charter school prior to enrolling at Cathedral School, and though the institution was good, the atmosphere didn’t provide enough of an academic challenge for her bright, precocious middle school boy, Betti said.
“I really try not to put emphasis on test scores,” Betti said. “But I looked at them and thought, ‘my son can do so much better than this.’”
That’s when she decided to explore other options. After discovering the school voucher program through online research, and after visiting several private schools in the area, she and her husband decided the learning opportunities and hands-on instruction at Cathedral School would be the best fit for their son.
Donovan is one of thousands of North Carolina students who have benefited from at least one version of school choice, which allows parents from every economic background to depart traditional public schools and select options they believe will serve their children better — using vouchers, enrolling in charter schools, or educating their children at home. National School Choice Week, a nationwide educational and promotional campaign highlighting these options and advocating wider availability of them, begins today and runs through Jan. 30.
“I feel the greatest gift you can give your child is a good education,” Betti said. “I really do. I figure as a parent, if I do my part, it’s up to him what he does with that. But at least I can say, ‘Donovan, you have the opportunity.’”
Since his enrollment, Donovan’s grades have increased, and his attitude toward academics also has improved, Betti said.
“I just think if people knew more about [opportunity scholarships], if they knew they had the chance to go to another school that accepted [vouchers], then they might think, ‘well this is an alternative for me,’” Betti said. “If my child is over here, and this is not working for us, I can move my child over here to a different school.”
Donovan is just one of eight students at Cathedral School who have received an opportunity scholarship, and school principal Donna Moss would like to see the program grow in the coming year — not only within her institution, but also statewide.
“Parents don’t like uncertainty about whether their child is going to be able to get a scholarship, or whether the program will continue, and I think that now that we’re certain that the program will continue and we can start utilizing it effectively, I think we’ll see an uptick in participation statewide,” Moss said.
Enacted by legislation in 2013, the Opportunity Scholarship Program was subjected to a host of legal challenges regarding the use of public tax dollars to fund private school tuitions before July 2015, when the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled the law constitutional.
The program now has awarded more than 2,500 children $4,200 vouchers to attend private schools during the 2015-16 school year, and is on more solid footing with parents who are looking for reliable education options, says Terry Stoops, director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation. But though the voucher program is moving forward, challenges remain.
“There is still some alignment necessary between private schools and the State Education Assistance Authority,” Stoops said. “And these are issues that can be worked out with minor changes to the law, or minor changes put in place by the SEAA that makes it easier for parents and private schools to accommodate the scholarship program.”
One of those issues is a conflict between private school and scholarship enrollment periods, Moss said.
“At this point it’s a question of whether or not seats are left to be had when a parent comes to enroll their child as an opportunity scholar, Moss said. “As the program becomes more well-known and widespread, I would like to think that the private school administrators could suggest some tweaks that could better serve the families.”
Families will continue to benefit from opportunity scholarships, according to Betti, who says she’s blessed to give her son the education and future he deserves.
“If I’d had the opportunity to go to a school like this, there’s no telling what career path I might have chosen,” Betti said. “[I tell Donovan] getting a good education is so important … because you have to build a life for yourself. I feel like if I give him an opportunity, or open up as many doors as I can for him, then it’s up to [Donovan] to decide what he wants to do with his life.”
The preceding article was written by Kari Travis, Associate Editor of Carolina Journal, and reappears here with gracious permission of the author. Follow Ms. Travis on Twitter at @karilynntravis.