by Dr. Terry Stoops
Former Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
In recognition of National School Choice Week, the John Locke Foundation asked 600 likely general election voters to assess the condition of education in North Carolina and opine on the state’s popular public and private school choice programs. Results confirmed that, while concerns about the general direction of education persist, public opinion is on the side of families and parental choice proponents.
Two-thirds of respondents (66.2%) said that things in K-12 education have generally gotten off on the wrong track, and some appear to blame Gov. Roy Cooper for it. A plurality (46.4%) disapproved of Cooper’s handling of education issues. Some lingering discontentment with Cooper’s heavy-handed response to school reopening may have played a role, although partisanship appears to be the overriding factor. Even so, some believed that the Cooper administration opted to sign the National School Choice Week proclamation for the first time this year to piggyback off of the popularity of parental choice.
Teacher unions and local school boards are even more unpopular than Gov. Cooper. Only roughly a third of those polled had favorable opinions of teacher unions and school boards. While there is plenty of blame to go around, respondents are not faulting teachers for North Carolina’s education struggles. A solid 62.9% had favorable opinions of teachers.
There is little doubt that North Carolinians trust parents to make decisions that are in the best interests of their child’s education. This year, 81.4% agreed that parents should have the ability to choose where their child attends school, a figure that has been remarkably stable since 2020. Similarly, 77.9% of respondents said that the child’s parents/guardians are best suited to determine where a child should attend school. A courageous 11.4% of those polled believed that local school boards should assume that responsibility.
Why do North Carolinians support parental choice? The most common response (38.4%) was that parental choice lets parents choose the best educational option for their child. Other respondents (21.5%) contended that parental choice provides children trapped in underperforming schools with the opportunity for a better education. Far fewer embraced school choice because it produces improvements through competition or leads to higher levels of education satisfaction, improved student achievement, and taxpayer savings.
Reasons why a person may oppose parental choice varied. While a plurality (25.9%) was unsure why anyone would reject parental choice, a portion of the sample worried about racial segregation. But they need not be concerned. For example, seven “gold standard” empirical studies of voucher programs in Ohio, Wisconsin, Louisiana, and the District of Columbia addressed this issue. Six found positive effects, and one of three studies of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program found no visible effect. Indeed, racial segregation in public schooling preceded the arrival of parental choice initiatives, and in many ways choice programs function as an antidote to segregation.
Given the overwhelming support for parental autonomy, it is not surprising that private school voucher programs fared well in the poll. Nearly 59% of respondents supported the idea of creating an education savings account (ESA) to address pandemic-era learning loss. This finding is consistent with the 68.4% that welcomed legislative proposals that would provide parents greater flexibility in allocating how tax dollars are spent on their child’s education, which is the primary advantage of an ESA compared to other forms of parental choice.
The Opportunity Scholarship Program continues to face attacks by the North Carolina Association of Educators and public school advocacy organizations. Currently, this program provides modest, $4,200 private school vouchers to over 19,400 children from low- and moderate-income families. The Civitas Poll finds that, despite the meritless lawsuits and a callous opposition campaign, the general public is overwhelmingly supportive of the program.
Nearly 61% of respondents backed the Opportunity Scholarship Program, and only around 22% opposed it. Naturally, Republicans were more likely to approve of the program, but a surprising number of Democrats and unaffiliated/other voters also supported it. Overall, 55.2% of Democrats and nearly 64.5% of unaffiliated/other voters favored Opportunity Scholarships. Interestingly, white respondents were much less likely to support the program than Black (63.0%), Hispanic (73.8%), and Asian (75.6%) North Carolinians.
Given the program’s immense popularity, a plurality (45.7%) of the likely voters surveyed in the poll said they were more likely to vote for a candidate in the 2022 elections who supports Opportunity Scholarship. Curiously, the strong endorsement of the program among Hispanic voters does not translate into the votes at the ballot box, as only around 38% of Hispanics said they were more likely to vote for Opportunity Scholarship champions running for office. Overall, support for pro-voucher candidates dropped by 7 percentage points compared to 2021.
The 2021 session of the NC General Assembly was a triumph for school choice. Republican lawmakers produced a bipartisan budget that streamlined and expanded statewide private school choice programs, earning a signature from former parental choice opponent Gov. Cooper. Much work remains, however, as families continue to struggle to manage their children’s education and overwhelmingly want a larger role in controlling it.