Momentum for school choice is growing—let's keep it going

By Mike Long

I have said it before, and I will say it again: School choice is here to stay in North Carolina. A little bit louder for folks in the back? Sure.

School choice is here to stay in North Carolina.

The coronavirus pandemic has only accelerated these trends in 2020, as a growing number of parents exercise their right to select the best (and safest) learning environment for their children.

Consider that over 20 percent of North Carolina schoolchildren are now educated in a school of choice—a private, public charter, or home school. The trend is clear: The number of students attending schools of choice has jumped 47 percent in the last decade alone.

Lawmakers in the NC General Assembly understand these trends. That is why the legislature recently passed a sweeping coronavirus relief bill that includes expansion of school choice in the Tar Heel State.

Lawmakers’ first step was to strengthen and expand the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides up to $4,200 in support each year for a student to attend a private school of their parent’s choosing. Now, a family of four earning up to $72,000 a year is eligible for support. The legislature also eliminated the cap on Kindergarten and first grade student eligibility for Opportunity Scholarships, opening the program to as many as 800 new students.

How impactful have Opportunity Scholarships been to recipient families? As one parent recently explained to us, “The Opportunity Scholarship has returned the light of learning to our kids’ eyes.” For these families, this scholarship is the bridge to a better school and a better future.

Opportunity Scholarships are not the only area where the legislature has been active. Using federal CARES Act funding, lawmakers also allocated $6.5 million to fund the waitlist for North Carolina’s two programs serving students with special needs: The Children with Disabilities grant and Education Savings Account. The funds should help to cover over new ESAs and new Disabilities Grants this Fall. Is there more work to be done to ensure families with students with special needs have the resources they need for their children? Yes, and you can bet we will continue that push.

Our organization, Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, was honored to play a role in bringing about this important expansion of school choice in North Carolina. When the General Assembly was considering the COVID-19 relief bill, we mobilized over 100 families, students, and school choice supporters on the front lawn of the Legislative Building in Raleigh. These same advocates filled the chamber gallery to provide additional support during the vote.

All of these advancements, however, could be for nothing depending on what the political scene looks like in 2021. On the issue of school choice, the division between the two candidates in our race for governor is clear: Incumbent Gov. Roy Cooper has made ending school choice in our state one of his top priorities, even during the pandemic when so many families are desperate for options. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest supports expanding school choice options.

Consider this: In a shameful affront to our state’s Opportunity Scholarship families, Gov. Cooper released a budget proposal shortly before the General Assembly met earlier this month that gutted the program. Had he been successful, Gov. Cooper would have denied these hard-working, low-income, taxpaying citizens the help they desperately need to provide the best education possible for their children.

As one Opportunity Scholarship parent recently shared with us, “During a global health pandemic and economic crisis, parents surely don’t need another additional problem to address.”

I could not say it better myself. For school choice in North Carolina, 2020 is playing out to be another big year, and it will continue to do so in the months to come. Because we believe, as do more-and-more North Carolinians across our state, that all families should have educational choices regardless of race, income, or zip code.

Let’s keep the momentum going!