by Dr. Robert Luebke
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
School choice in North Carolina is flourishing. Today more than 370,000 students attend charter, private or home schools in the Tar Heel State. That’s works out to about 1 in 5 students in North Carolina are enrolled in schools other than traditional public schools. Families can choose from charter, magnet, alternative, two-year college, and university lab schools. Parents may home school or choose a virtual school. Eligible parents may also access a variety of private school programs such as the Opportunity Scholarship, Special Needs Grant and the Special Needs ESA. How did all these options develop? It didn’t happen overnight. How we got here is a complicated story that warrants more space than what is allotted here. Still, we can understand the growing popularity of school choice In North Carolina by highlighting some of the key developments in recent decades. These include:
June 1988 – After a long struggle, North Carolina home school parents and friends help in passing legislation (HB 837) to amend and approve to allow – under certain circumstances – home instruction as a means of complying with compulsory school attendance requirements.
June 1996 – Legislation creating charter schools in North Carolina is approved by North Carolina House and Senate. Legislation calls for creation of up to 100 charter schools. In 1997, 34 charter schools opened, 34 years later 18 schools are still open. By 2004-05, 97 charter schools enroll 25,000 students.
June 2011 – Lawmakers approve a tax credit for parents of special needs children. Parents will be allowed to take a credit of up to $3,000 per semester, $6,0000 per year for the education costs of children who are moved from public schools to private schools.
June 2011 – Governor Beverly Perdue signs legislation to lift the 100-school cap on charter schools. The legislation also grants the State Board of Education final approval of all charter schools and sets annual charter school enrollment growth limits to 20 percent. The previous limit was 10 percent.
July 2013 – North Carolina approves Opportunity Scholarship Program as part of the 2013-14 budget bill. OSP allows eligible low-income students whose income does not exceed is 133 percent of Free and Reduced Lunch, to receive a voucher of up to $4,200 to be used at private schools. Schools are required to be accredited, comply with nondiscrimination requirements, provide parents with an annual written explanation of student progress and administer a nationally standardized test to voucher students. In addition, schools that receive more than $300,000 in voucher payments are required to have financial review performed by a CPA.
May 2013 – North Carolina lawmakers approve and Gov. McCrory signs legislation to redefine a home school. The new law expands the definition of home school to include children of not more than two families of “households to be a nonpublic school consisting the children of not more than two families where parents and legal guardian determine the scope and sequence of academic instruction. The new law allows parents or legal guardians to hire outside teachers or special education experts. The law also allows home schoolers to form co-ops apprenticeship programs and participate in other educational opportunities.
July 2013 – Special Needs Tax Credit becomes Special Needs Grant. HB -269 allows parents to receive up to $3,000 per child per semester and $6,000 per child, per academic year.
July 2015 – North Carolina Supreme Court upholds constitutionality of Opportunity Scholarship. In Hart v. State, The Court ruled that the North Carolina Constitution “specifically envision[ed] that children in our state may be educated by means outside of the public-school system.” In addition, the court also said that the legislature may assist alternative education programs without compromising its constitutional responsibilities to fund and operate a general and uniform system of free public schools.
October 2017 – North Carolina becomes the 5th state to provide education savings accounts to parents of special needs students. The program included as part of the biennial budget and signed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, provides parents an account of up to $9,000 annually to use for educational therapies, tuition, tutoring testing or other approved educational services.
2018 – North Carolina Court of Appeals rules in favor of State Legislature upholding the right of the General Assembly to use the practice of forward funding to improve budgeting for the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Governor Roy Cooper had sued to stop the practice.
July 2020 – Parents registering to home school in North Carolina crash the state web site where parents must declare their intent to home school.
September 2020 – Gov. Roy Cooper signs covid-relief legislation that includes provisions to expand eligibility for the Opportunity Scholarship from 133 percent of federal poverty guidelines to 150 percent of federal poverty. The bill raises income eligibility for a family of four from $63K to about $72K. Also included in the legislation was $6.5 million to address a backlog of applicants for the Special Needs Grant Program.