September 18, 2003

RALEIGH — Most elementary and middle-school students in North Carolina do not attend a school chosen by their parents, according to a new study from the North Carolina Education Alliance (NCEA) that ranks each school district in the state on the extent of educational choice.

Despite recent growth in private and home schools, the creation of charter schools in the mid-1990s, and the well-publicized introduction of a public-school choice plan in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, nearly three-quarters of all North Carolina students in grades 3 through 8 attended an assigned public school in 2002-03.

Furthermore, NCEA policy analyst Karen Palasek found that parents had no choices among public schools in 69 out of North Carolina’s 117 school districts last year.

“A growing body of research suggests that parental choice can have a powerful effect on educational offerings and outcomes,” Palasek said. “North Carolina’s relative lack of choice represents a missed opportunity for educators, children, and families.”

She pointed to studies such as the 2000 Manhattan Institute report on the Children’s Scholarship Fund of Charlotte, which found significant gains in reading and math scores for poor students after just a year of attending a private school using CSF scholarships.

The NCEA study did find that some districts had substantial choice offerings. Seven systems – including Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Winston-Salem/Forsyth, and Cumberland – have adopted open-enrollment programs that allow parents to choose public schools other than those to which their children are assigned. In addition, nine systems – including Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Guilford, Wake, and Winston-Salem/Forsyth – offer magnet schools or programs that provide public-school choice to at least some families.

After factoring in rising enrollments for charter, private, and home schools, some of these systems ranked highly in the percentage of grade 3-8 students enrolled in schools of choice, Palasek found. In five districts, including three of the four largest in the state (Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Wake, and Winston-Salem/Forsyth), a majority of students attended schools of choice in 2002-03. But their combined enrollment represented only one-fifth of the statewide student population in those grades.

For most counties in North Carolina, private and home schools were the only options available to families. There are no charter schools, for example, in 73 of the state’s school districts, and in only nine districts do charter school enrollments exceed five percent of total grade 3-8 enrollment.

“North Carolina does not have a widespread network of charter schools,” Palasek observed. “Removing the statewide cap on charter-school creation would serve to increase choice significantly, as would making open enrollment and magnet schools available over greater geographic areas of the state and offering tax breaks to families choosing private or home schools for their children.”

Overall, 73 percent of students in grades 3-8 attended a public school assigned to them by school districts. About 9 percent of the students attended public schools in an open-enrollment district, with another 4 percent attending public magnet schools. Charter schools (2 percent), private schools (6 percent), and home schools (6 percent) rounded out the distribution of student enrollment for the 2002-03 school year.

The report’s findings suggest that schools of choice are disproportionately located in urban areas, where there are larger concentrations of private schools, both independent and religious, and where districts have been more willing to expand choice within public schools. While some have suggested that rural areas deserve more equitable treatment with regard to per-pupil funding, Palasek noted that public policies advancing public-school and private-school choice would likely have disproportionately positive affects on rural families who desire better educational settings for their children.

“It is striking that while many policymakers and researchers have focused their attention on the inputs of the educational process – such as teacher compensation and class size – few have sought to find out how much choice is available to parents, and what the impact might be on student outcomes,” Palasek said. “This study represents an attempt to begin such an examination in North Carolina.”

The report provides detailed information on enrollment in district-run public schools, charter schools, and home schools for every school district in the state. It is now available online. For more information about the report or the North Carolina Education Alliance, call Palasek at 919-832-9756.