Why We Celebrate School Choice
Recently, thousands of parents, students, educators and advocates showcased how choice benefits students, families, schools, and communities during National School Choice Week in North Carolina.
North Carolina celebrates school choice because it hasn’t always been around. Choice is a fact of life most of us readily take for granted. If we don’t like our job, house, doctor, or car mechanic, we can choose a different one. But unless your family has the means to access a private school or can move, choice has been an option largely missing from American public education.
Like most places, in North Carolina the government assigns children to public schools based on where they live. Everyone hopes to have access to a good school. This desire has spurred social and economic stratification of our neighborhoods. But what happens if your child is assigned to a failing school? Having a child’s future be impacted by their zip code is a fundamental failing of American public education.
Choice addresses these problems by empowering parents to choose the best educational option for their children. When parents are allowed access to different educational options, they have responded in resounding fashion. In the last decade, the percentage of students attending charter, private, or home schools in North Carolina has increased from 13 percent (2012) to 23 percent (2022).
Today there are over 200 charter schools across North Carolina with almost 135,000 students enrolled. In addition, over 24,000 students from eligible families in North Carolina receive vouchers potentially worth up to about $6,200 to help cover the cost of tuition at over 500 private schools. Alongside public and private options, home schooling has also flourished in the Tar Heel State over the past decade. In 2012, the number of home school students in North Carolina was just under 80,000. Today home-schooling enrollment tops 160,000.
Strong public sentiment for school choice and choice programs propels these numbers. A January 2023 Civitas Poll found that 82 percent of respondents agreed that “Parents should have the ability to choose where their child attends school.” Likewise, 67 percent of respondents said they support the Opportunity Scholarship Program to provide eligible families with vouchers to attend private schools, up six percentage points from last year. In addition, 69 percent of respondents voiced support for charter schools, an increase of 11 percentage points over the previous year.
With the phenomenal growth of school choice has come challenges. Opposition from de facto teacher unions like the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) and other public school advocacy organizations like Public School Forum has increased. In 2020 Tamika Walker Kelly, executive director of the NCAE, filed suit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s voucher program. The case is currently waiting to be heard by a three-judge trial court panel. Gov. Roy Cooper has actively campaigned against vouchers, which according to him “drain money from the public schools.” He has even gone to court — unsuccessfully — to halt the expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship Program. In the meantime, demand for school choice continues to grow.
Critics have grown more insistent that choice is a zero-sum game that only benefits private schools at the expense of public schools. Education writer Robert Pondiscio stepped into this debate recently in the Washington Examiner and offered a sage perspective. “Not only can choice provide a way out for students in failing schools, but it can also enrich our nation by enhancing its vibrancy, variety, and vivacity,” he wrote. “Our nation is better off when its schools are not a bland monoculture but rather match the varied dynamism of its people and their aspirations.”
The Supreme Court has been helpful in pointing us toward that future. In 1923, in Meyer v. Nebraska the court ruled that parents “could direct the upbringing and education of children under their control.” Two years later, in Pierce vs. Society of Sisters (1925), a unanimous court ruled that states did not have the right to compel students to take standardized instruction from public schools only. Furthermore, Justice James McReynolds held up the fundamental rights of parents when he wrote, “The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.”
Public sentiment and law have built a solid foundation for school choice to flourish in North Carolina. Magnet, charter, private, and home schools help parents choose the best educational option for their children. In so doing, choice has done much to boost academic and social outcomes, improve schools, and strengthen communities.
These are the reasons choice continues to flourish. And they’re why we celebrated school choice not only last week, but every week of the year.
Bob Luebke is the Director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, North Carolina.
This article was originally published by RealClearPolicy and made available via RealClearWire.