Students attending schools of choice need support during the COVID-19 crisis, too

By Mike Long

As our state continues to move forward with pandemic relief and economic recovery, we must realize that North Carolinians are being impacted every day, including financial hardship for families.

Public schools are receiving (and rightfully so) much needed relief dollars during the COVID-19 pandemic, to the tune of $396 million in federal support and $196 million in state spending approved by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper.

The big question in my mind: Will North Carolina’s more than 350,000 students attending public charter, private, and home schools get help as well? During times like this, it is only right for leaders in our state to pursue appropriate means to support our state’s citizens, and that should include families who exercise school choice. 

My hope is that our elected officials will recognize the crucial role that schools of choice play in the welfare of not just the families who attend, but all North Carolinians. That’s why I was excited to see the introduction of a new bill in the NC General Assembly, Private School Families Tax Incentive, that would ensure families can continue to enroll their children in the school of their choice during these trying times. Sen. Rob Bryan and the co-sponsors of the bill clearly understand the importance of schools of choice.

But other lawmakers do not and are pushing to take away the ability of these families to choose the best school for their child. Reps. Graig Meyer, Ashton Wheeler Clemmons, Cynthia Ball, and Raymond Smith Jr. are the primary sponsors of a bill that would end the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Since the scholarship program was passed in 2013, tens of thousands of families have applied, and nearly 40,000 scholarships have been awarded or renewed for children from low-income and working-class families in our state.

I am thinking of students like Keenan at Cornerstone Christian Academy in Statesville. Keenan was a bullying victim in his local public school and wouldn’t have been able to attend Cornerstone without an Opportunity Scholarship. Now, he is headed to college on another scholarship to study archery. Keenan’s mom calls her son’s private school experience “life changing.”

Or families like Janet Nunn and her daughter, Nariah, who was struggling in a public-school setting until she received an Opportunity Scholarship. In her new private school, Nariah went from reading below kindergarten level to a straight-A student.

These are individual stories. But schools of choice also save taxpayer dollars each and every year. In the case of private schools alone, the cost savings are estimated to be over $1 billion annually. Parents who choose to send their children to private schools pay tuition in addition to funding public schools through their tax dollars, while shouldering the personal financial sacrifices needed to make this decision.

Simply put, without private schools, our traditional school system would hemorrhage under the added strain of tens of thousands of additional students.

There is a misperception that the average private-school family is white and wealthy. Let me paint a more accurate picture for you: Most are of modest means, and many are low-income. The more than 12,200 students on the Opportunity Scholarship Program, for example, have a median household income of around $31,000.And a January 2020 report from NC State University found that the median tuition charged by private schools participating in OSP during the 2016-2017 school year was $5,483.

What’s more, a higher proportion of Opportunity Scholarship recipients are African-American (29 percent) compared to the population of students in traditional public schools (25.1 percent). Polling also shows that black families support—and want—school choice in greater numbers than white families.

At Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, we often talk about how schools of choice offer an unparalleled alternative for families who simply are not well served by their locally zoned school. For these families, an education at a public charter, private, or home school is the difference between success and failure.

Even as elected officials continue to shore up support for traditional public schools, let’s give our families at schools of choice the help and attention they deserve.