More school choice is one of the ways North Carolina is better than a decade ago

Published July 30, 2020

By Bob Luebke

Education is one of the state’s most important responsibilities. Section IX of the North Carolina State Constitution describes a “general and uniform system of free public schools” which the General Assembly supports via taxation and which local governments may add to or supplement.

The North Carolina State Constitution also provides that every child of appropriate age and of sufficient mental and physical ability attend the public schools, “unless educated by other means” (See NC State Constitution , Article IX Section 3). While it is true the overwhelming majority of parents educate their children in traditional public schools, it is also true that – through no fault of their own – many children attend subpar schools or schools that are not a good fit to meet their academic, social or emotional needs.

Over the past decade, these developments have not only propelled the growth of school choice but also helped to change the composition of K-12 education in North Carolina.

How much has the makeup of K-12 education changed in North Carolina? Table I compares major educational options for families in 2010  and 2020. 

The table shows while traditional public schools added almost 7,400 students, schools of choice (e.g., charter schools, private schools, and home schools) added almost 120,000 students (119,689). Increases of 218 percent for charter schools and 83 percent for home schools aided these numbers. They are also important factors in explaining why the percentage of children in choice schools increased from 15.1 percent (2010) to 20.6 percent (2020).

Choice Options 

Over the past decade, the number of educational options available to North Carolina parents and students has certainly increased.  One item that has remained fairly constant throughout the period is the support for parental choice and school choice options.  Comparing responses from statewide surveys in 2012 and 2020 illustrates this point.

Support for school choice among North Carolinians has been strong throughout the past decade. In 2011, When asked which strategy would be most effective in improving public education  in North Carolina, 55 percent of respondents said, “allowing parents more choice over which school their child can attend.” In a similar poll 59 percent of respondents said “giving parents more choice will improve education for students” Likewise support for the idea of choice and its benefits continues to be strong. January 2020 School Choice poll found  81 percent of respondents agreed with the statement: parents should have the ability to choose where their child attends school. Likewise 76 percent of respondents identified a child’s parents or guardians and the ones best suited to determine where a child should attend school.[i]

So, what changed between 2010 and 2020? Public policy was catching up to public sentiment on school choice. Hart v. State (2015) upheld the constitutionality of North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program. However, it also laid the legal groundwork lawmakers needed to create other programs. Hart v State held that the state constitution envisioned that children may be educated outside of the public-school system  and that the state could fund alternative educational initiatives without conflicting with its own constitutional responsibilities.

Over the decade several key steps were taken to respond to the court case and the public clamor for more educational options. These included:

Lifting of the charter school cap. In 2011, the legislature lifted the self-imposed 100 school limit on the number of charter schools. The move unleased tremendous expansion in the number of charter schools. Today, North Carolina has almost double the number (196) of charter schools it had ten years ago and more than triple the number of students (121,231).

Creation of Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) and courts upholding forward-funding.  Passed in 2013 and enacted in 2014, OSP provides vouchers of up to $4,200 to eligible low- and moderate-income families to help them attend a private school. In 2017, Gov. Roy Cooper sued to overturn a 2016 law to forward fund OSP with funding increases of $10 million dollars a year through 2028-29. Supporters said the law was intended to help provide stability for the program and aid program growth. The Governor and opponents asserted that the law infringed on the Governor’s executive power to prepare budgets.  An appellate court judge disagreed and held the process of forward funding was legal.  From modest beginnings in 2014, today OSP has over 12,000 recipients.

Creation of special education scholarship grants for children with special needs. Originally approved as a tax credit program (2013) and later converted to a grant, the program provides parents of special needs students with grants of up to $4,000 per semester and up to $8,000 per academic year to use for academic tuition or special education services on educational expenses.  Special Needs children in home school settings are also eligible. Beginning with 276 students (2014), today 1,754 students receive Special Education Scholarship Grants, with an average value of $6,753.

NC becoming 5th state to approve ESA program.  In 2017 the North Carolina General Assembly approved a bill to provide Personal Education Savings Accounts to parents of special needs students.  The program Provides parents of special needs students with an account of up to $9,000 to spend on qualified educational and therapeutic services. In 2019 the average annual student award was $8,746. Enrollment increased slightly from 277 in 2019 to 282 this past year.

Homeschooling continues to grow.  Over the last decade homeschooling has exploded in North Carolina. If the 149,000 plus homeschooling students were contained in one school district, it would be the third largest in North Carolina. The explosion represents parents’ desire to direct education and a growing dissatisfaction with current education options. It is also a testament to North Carolina’s favorable homeschooling law which was approved in 1988.  The law allows parents to have control over how to educate their children with minimal governmental interference.  A 2013 law expanded the definition of homeschooling to, “a nonpublic school consisting of the children of not more than two families or households, where the parents or legal guardians or members of either household determine the scope and sequence of academic instruction.”

Choice comes to K-12 education

In the last decade, the number of educational options available to parents has grown significantly and placed  school choice inside the mainstream of education policy in North Carolina.

And why shouldn’t it be? Choice is a concept that is embedded in American psyche. We choose our house, car, jobs, doctors, where we buy groceries or fix our car. While North Carolinians face a dizzying array of choices in nearly every sector of society, choice in education has been slow and uneven. For example, NC Pre-K allows families to take state vouchers and to use it at a Pre-K provider of their choice.

Similarly, in 2018-19, North Carolina provided $267 million in grants and scholarship assistance for students to attend the college of their choice – public or private. For too long, the overwhelming majority of school districts – which are created monopolies — have not surprisingly opposed empowering parents with tools to direct the education of their children.

The growing public clamor for school choice has begun to reverse those trends. Over the past decade, more North Carolinians are finding that they have options other than simply attending the school to which they have been assigned. Today 1 in 5 students in North Carolina attends a charter school, private school, or home school. Those numbers are a reason to celebrate and redouble our efforts to ensure every child can choose a school that best fits their needs.  Why would we want anything less?