by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
According to student accounting data released by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction this week, Northampton County, a rural county that borders Virginia in northeastern North Carolina, is the undisputed king of school choice in the Tar Heel State.
In 2022, Northampton County holds the distinction of being the only majority-choice county in the state, with 57% of Northampton County children enrolled in private, home, and public charter schools. Vance County is a distant second with a 41% school choice market share.
Much of the success of school choice in Northampton County is due to the presence of one of the state’s best public charter schools, KIPP Gaston College Preparatory. Nearly 1,300 elementary, middle, and high school students attended KIPP Gaston Prep in 2022, almost the same number of students enrolled in Northampton County Schools. While impressive, it’s important to note that students can cross district and county lines to attend public charter schools. As a result, a portion of the KIPP Gaston Prep enrollment likely migrated from other school districts and counties.
No wonder parents throughout the region are eager to send their children to KIPP Gaston Prep even though it spends several thousand less per student than nearby district schools. (In 2021, KIPP Gaston Prep spent an average of $11,943 per student versus $18,520 per student in Northampton County and $14,685 in Halifax County.) The school enrolls a very high percentage of students from low-income families, but it continues to achieve remarkable outcomes.
Education website The 74 published a glowing excerpt about the school published in Richard Whitmire’s 2019 book “The B.A. Breakthrough: How Ending Diploma Disparities Can Change the Face of America.” Whitmire observed, “Something compelling is going on in this one-stoplight town.” That “something” is a well-run school that maintains high academic and behavioral expectations for students regardless of circumstances or challenges.
Yet, the appetite for school choice goes beyond KIPP Gaston Prep. Last school year, 180 children attended private schools, and another 172 children were homeschooled in Northampton County. While 352 is a modest number compared to more populous counties, it represents a nearly 12% increase over the last decade.
Interestingly, approximately four out of 10 private school students in Northampton County received an Opportunity Scholarship last year. The Opportunity Scholarship Program is a popular statewide private school scholarship initiative that defrays the cost of private school tuition and fees for children from low-income households. The program receives strong support from Republicans and stalwart opposition from Governor Cooper and most of the Democratic legislative caucus.
Focusing on Northampton County removes the stigma of school choice as primarily an urban or suburban phenomenon. Of the ten counties with the largest school choice market share, only Durham and Buncombe have a large city or town. School choice champions Northampton, Vance, Pamlico, Pasquotank, Rutherford, Granville, Wilson, and Person are predominantly rural communities. In North Carolina, utilization of public and nonpublic educational options crosses geographic, demographic, and ideological categories.
Of course, rural communities also dominate the list of counties with the lowest school choice market share. Duplin, Tyrrell, and Scotland counties are school choice deserts, with only around one in ten students enrolled in home, private, or public charter schools. None of these counties has a charter school within county lines, although that will not deter families from accessing a charter school in a nearby county.
Unlike Duplin and Scotland counties, Tyrrell County also lacks a private school, so families would need to commute to one in Hyde, Beaufort, or Pitt counties. While the lack of parental school choice options is disappointing, educational entrepreneurs have tremendous opportunities to expand home school cooperatives and open private and charter schools throughout the Albemarle and Sandhills regions.
In general, North Carolina’s large urban and suburban counties remain the most vibrant centers of entrepreneurial activity in the education sector. A good rule of thumb is that around one in four students in these communities attends a school of choice. Union, Guilford, Wake, Brunswick, Gaston, New Hanover, Stanly, Iredell, Franklin, Mecklenburg, and Lincoln counties all have school choice market shares between 25% and 28%. Because new and existing schools continue to pull students away from districts, the school choice market share in these counties will continue to grow.
Admittedly, I was disappointed that North Carolina’s statewide school choice market share remains at 23%. I believed that 2022 would be the year the state attained the coveted 25% benchmark. Even though we fell short this year, the consistent growth of home, private, and public charter school enrollment will allow the state to hit that laudable goal very soon.
In the end, the purpose of parental school choice is not to ensure that all children attend a home, private, or public charter school. Rather, choice proponents envision a system of school choice that ensures that all families have the capacity and means to choose the school that best meets the needs of their children. “Fund students, not systems” is not just a pithy slogan; it is a moral imperative.