by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
As we reach the midpoint in this year’s National School Choice Week (NSCW), we should reflect on how far we have come and what is next for school choice in North Carolina.
Since 2011, tens of thousands of families and educators have celebrated the availability of public, private, and home school options during NCSW. This year, there were over 2,300 NSCW celebrations in North Carolina alone, including an outstanding talk by businessman and educational entrepreneur Robert Luddy at the John Locke Foundation on Monday. Groups including the Civitas Institute, Parents for Educational Freedom in N.C., the N.C. Association of Public Charter Schools sponsored events this week. Additionally, schools and parent and community groups throughout the state rallied in support of school choice.
Before Larry Delconte of Harnett County prevailed in his challenge to the state prohibition of home schools in 1985, families had two choices: an assigned public school or a private school. North Carolina lawmakers approved charter school legislation in 1996 and lifted the 100-school cap in 2011. Two private school choice programs, the Opportunity Scholarship Program and the Disability Grant Program, became law in 2013. Lawmakers added an Education Savings Account program for special needs children in 2017. Today, approximately 20 percent of North Carolina schoolchildren attend a school outside of their district.
Despite the remarkable growth of school choice in North Carolina, we shouldn’t take school choice for granted. Unions and public school advocacy organizations openly oppose charter school expansion and all three private school scholarship programs. (A small group of extremists would like to outlaw private schools altogether.) And many of the same groups support strengthening state oversight of home schools. The truth is that no educational option is safe as long as opponents seek to acquire and use government power to impede its growth.
But choice opponents have a problem: public opinion. A January 2020 Civitas Institute poll of 800 registered voters in North Carolina found that a majority welcome the availability of educational options. For example, 81 percent agreed that parents should have the ability to choose where their child attends school. Another 76 percent of respondents said that the child’s parents/guardians are best suited to determine where a child should attend school. And 57 percent believe that state lawmakers need to do more to expand educational options for families.
A separate poll of 300 non-white registered voters in North Carolina revealed tremendous support for school choice among African American, Hispanic, and other racial and ethnic subgroups. The Civitas Institute reports that 84 percent of non-white voters agreed that parents should have the ability to choose where their child’s school. Moreover, 78 percent would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports programs giving parents and families more educational options for their children.
The Civitas Institute poll mirrors findings from national polls, which found overwhelming support for school choice generally and among non-white populations. Their enthusiasm for educational options is not necessarily a reflection of their hostility towards district schools. Regrettably, some district school boosters characterize support for choice as a zero-sum game, but it is not. Most parents appear to be quite content with their child’s assigned school. But they also recognize that choice is essential when an assigned district school does not meet the needs of families.
Finally, the Civitas Institute poll suggests that voters respond favorably to politicians that champion educational options. This is bad news for Gov. Roy Cooper, who is openly hostile to school choice and proposed “a gradual elimination” of Opportunity Scholarships in his budget last year. (Ironically, Cooper’s daughter attended an elite private school in Raleigh.) To his credit, Cooper’s presumptive opponent, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, announced a bold plan to expand educational options in North Carolina.
The 2019 legislative session took its toll, so I suspect that, in the coming short session, the General Assembly will do little more than propose revisions to the biennial state budget. If that is the case, the November elections will determine what is next for school choice in North Carolina. If school choice proponents do not prevail at the polls, National School Choice Week in 2021 may be a somber affair.