School choice grows in NC

There are many reasons for North Carolinians to be proud of the statewide education reforms implemented over the last five years. The state has made massive investments in K-12 education with a focus on grade-level proficiency in reading. Accountability is stronger. We pay teachers better. School districts have unprecedented budgetary flexibility. The list goes on and on.

But no achievement is more impressive than the remarkable expansion of school choice in North Carolina. Today, around 17 percent of school-age children in North Carolina attend a home, private, or charter school.

In 2013, the General Assembly made changes to the state’s homeschool statute that gave parents the option of using online schools and cooperative arrangements to supplement conventional, parent-led instruction. Since then, homeschool growth has been phenomenal. In 2015, homeschool enrollment eclipsed the 100,000-student mark after adding nearly 8,700 students, compared with the prior year estimate. This year, North Carolina had an estimated 118,268 homeschooled students, a staggering increase of 11,415 students — or nearly 11 percent.

While not as impressive as homeschool growth, private school enrollment inched up by roughly 500 students this year. After years of enrollment declines and only negligible increases over the past two years, private school enrollment finally exceeded the pre-recession enrollment peak of 97,656 students. At last count, North Carolina private school enrollment totaled 97,721 students.

The Opportunity Scholarship and Disability Grant programs, which provide private school vouchers to eligible low-income and special-needs students, are likely responsible for the recent uptick in the private school population. The General Assembly just approved substantial funding increases for both programs, so total private school enrollment may soon surpass 100,000 students.

More than 800 students received a voucher through the Disability Grant Program in 2016. The most recently passed state budget boosted funding for the program by 137 percent to $10 million. Thanks to that change, hundreds of additional special needs children will have access to $8,000 private school vouchers.

Lawmakers also created a reserve fund for the Opportunity Scholarship Program that will add $10 million a year to the $34.8 million program budget over the next decade. More than 6,000 low-income children will receive an opportunity scholarship next year, well over five times the number of students who received a scholarship during the program’s first year of operation. By the 2026-27 school year, the program will have a total budget of $134.8 million, allowing thousands more to receive a $4,200 voucher to attend a private school that better meets their needs.

In recent years, the General Assembly has chipped away at unnecessary restrictions on charter school growth. In 2011, lawmakers removed the 100-school cap and further authorized charter enrollment to grow by as much as 20 percent a year. Subsequent statutory changes permitted charter schools to add one grade per year without approval from the State Board of Education and implemented a fast-track replication process for outstanding charter schools. In 2014, lawmakers approved legislation that allowed two virtual charter schools, N.C. Virtual Academy and N.C. Connections Academy, to begin operating in North Carolina.

Thanks to these forward-thinking changes, there are more charter schools now than at any time since passage of the charter law in 1996. Enrollment in the state’s 158 charter schools had grown to nearly 82,000 students, an increase of 83 percent over the previous five years.

Too many families are not satisfied with the academic quality or social environment of their assigned public schools but do not have the means or opportunity to give their children an alternative. One day soon, household income and zip code no longer will correlate to the quality of education in North Carolina, and the leadership of the General Assembly will be the primary reason why.

Terry Stoops is director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation.

Terry Stoops is director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation.

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