Allow me to recommend a new state nickname for North Carolina: The School Choice State.

The N.C. Division of Non-Public Education released private and home school statistics this week.  As expected, home school enrollment continued to grow, while private school enrollment exceeded 100,000 students for the first time.

North Carolina home schools educated an estimated 127,847 students during the 2016-17 school year.  The number of home school students increased by 8 percent, and the year-to-year increase was over 9,500 students.  Over the last ten school years, North Carolina’s home school enrollment increased by a staggering 79 percent.

A 2013 change in state law is partly responsible for the surge in home school enrollment.  The N.C. General Assembly made changes to North Carolina’s home school statute that offered families the option to supplement parent-led instruction with online courses and cooperative arrangements.  Since then, home school growth has been phenomenal.

But even more important than a change in the law is the thriving home school community itself.  The N.C. Homeschooling group on Facebook, for example, has well over 4,000 members and North Carolinians for Home Education’s Facebook page collected nearly 18,500 likes.  Home school parents use these pages and many other web-based forums to answer questions, exchange information, and offer advice to prospective and current home school families.  And they do so voluntarily, based on a shared idea – the vitality of the home school movement in North Carolina, that is, safeguarding the freedom to educate their children at home with minimal government interference, is dependent on a strong, supportive community.

Home schools were not the only institutions to see enrollment gains.  According to the Division of Non-Public Education, private school enrollment reached an all-time high during the 2016-17 school year – 100,585 students.  That was a 2,864 student or 2.9 percent increase since the 2015-16 school year.

There are multiple reasons for the boost in private school enrollment.  Certainly, a strong economy and an increase in the number of private schools played a role.  But I suspect that the Opportunity Scholarship and Disability Grant programs, which provide private school scholarships to low-income and special needs students respectively, are responsible for the bulk of these gains.  The Republican leadership in the General Assembly created both programs and continue to support them politically and financially.

Last year, the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority awarded over 5,600 Opportunity Scholarships and over 1,200 Disability Grants to families who wanted to improve the educational environment for their children.  With the passage of the Personal Education Savings Account (PESA) program this year, families will have the flexibility to use a state-funded account to select any combination of qualifying expenses for their special needs children.  When the program comes online in 2018-19, PESA will likely draw even more families into private institutions.

The N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI) has not published the final average daily membership figures for the 2016-17 school year, but I estimate that around 92,000 children attended public charter schools last year.  I am confident that charter school enrollment will exceed 100,000 students in the coming school year.  In fact, the state has set aside initial funding for 101,689 charter school students.  (That number is based on projections and will change based on fall enrollment figures.)  That would be a remarkable achievement for a sector that enrolled around half of that number of students just five years ago.

In the end, an estimated 17 percent of North Carolina families will select a home, private, or charter school this year.  Most of them will not know the people who fueled the creation and energize the preservation of those opportunities – passionate citizens, courageous legislators, and stalwart advocates from North Carolina and beyond.  The John Locke Foundation and its supporters are proud to be counted among them.