by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
Thanks in part to the ludicrous school reopening plan discharged by Gov. Roy Cooper and Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Mandy Cohen, the 2020-21 school year was a banner year for school choice. Plans A, B, C made the decision to leave district schools as easy as 1, 2, 3.
Last week, I was the first to report new home and private school enrollment figures published by the North Carolina Division of Non-Public Education. Growth in both sectors exceeded my expectations. Homeschool enrollment had been growing at a healthy clip for years. Had the pandemic never occurred, we would have expected enrollment growth in the 4% to 8% range. Instead, the number of homeschool students increased by a mind-boggling 20.6%. The year-to-year increase was 30,700 students, courtesy of over 19,000 newly registered home schools. Overall, North Carolina home schools educated an estimated 179,900 students during the pandemic school year. If home schools were a single school district, it would be North Carolina’s largest by far.
It isn’t easy to assess how North Carolina’s homeschool enrollment compares with other states’. According to the Home School Legal Defense Association, 11 states do not require homeschool families to register their school with a state agency. Even states that impose registration requirements may not publish statistical summaries of their home schools. While the total number of homeschoolers in North Carolina may not exceed that of populous states like California and Texas, I concur with EdChoice estimates that place North Carolina as the state with the largest market share of homeschoolers in the nation.
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 2020-21 school year with a statewide total of 107,341 students. That was an increase of 3,382 students (a 3.3% increase) from the year before.
Last summer, I was concerned that government mandates on businesses would crush household incomes and force private school families to enroll their children in a public school. From mid-March to mid-April 2020, around 22 million Americans, or roughly 13.5% of the labor force, filed initial claims for unemployment benefits. At the time, economists estimated that the national unemployment rate would peak at 20% and remain near 10% through the end of the year. The rate peaked at 14.8% in April 2020 and began a steady decline to the May 2021 rate of 5.8%.
Without a doubt, many families struggled to make it through the worst of the pandemic. North Carolina’s three private school choice programs limit eligibility in ways that make it impossible for many families to access scholarships that help offset the cost of tuition. Credit goes to the thousands of middle-class North Carolinians. They scraped together enough to send their children to primarily small, faith-based private schools that address the unique needs of the child and the values of the family.
The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has not published the final average daily membership figures for the 2020-21 school year, so charter school enrollment figures are tentative. The 2021 Annual Charter Schools Report indicated that membership exceeded 126,000 students during the pandemic year. That is a remarkable achievement for a sector that barely broke the 80,000-student mark just five years ago.
In the end, an estimated 23% of North Carolina families selected a home, private, or charter school last school year. Many may not know the people who fueled the creation – and energize the preservation – of those opportunities. They include ordinary citizens as well as educational entrepreneurs, courageous legislators, and a diverse coalition of passionate advocates including the John Locke Foundation.