NC private school enrollment is soaring, and it could rise even more. Here’s why.
By T. Keung Hui
August 2, 2023
A historic expansion of North Carolina’s school voucher program could come at the same time that enrollment in private schools is rising at near-record levels.
New statewide figures released this week show that enrollment in private schools grew by 11,457 students during the 2022-23 school year. Private schools haven’t added this many students since the 1971-72 school year, when they gained 11,764 kids during the fight over public school integration.
There are now 126,768 students attending private schools, a 10% increase from the prior year. The number could rise even more as Republican lawmakers want to allow any family to be eligible to apply for a private school voucher.
“It just shows you that parents want choice plain and simple,” Mike Long, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said in an interview Wednesday. “More and more parents want choice. They want what’s best for their kids.”
But advocates of traditional public schools are trying to dissuade the General Assembly from going ahead with the expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship program.
“Public Schools First NC is strongly opposed to using public dollars to fund private school education,” Heather Koons, a spokesperson for the group, said in an interview Wednesday. “That’s not to say private school education is a problem in and of itself. We just don’t think public dollars should be going to schools that aren’t bound to serve all students.”
PUBLIC SCHOOL ENROLLMENT FALLING
Enrollment in private schools and traditional public schools have been going in the opposite directions. Enrollment in traditional public schools went up 1.1% last school year but still remains below pre-pandemic levels, EdNC reported. It had been dropping before the pandemic.
In contrast, private schools have seen a 25% increase in enrollment in the past five years, fueled in large part by the Opportunity Scholarship program. Last school year, 25,547 students received a taxpayer-funded voucher to help them attend a private school.
Traditional public schools educate 76.5% of the state’s 1.78 million K-12 students. But that percentage, which was 86.5% in 2010, has been steadily dropping.
Long attributes issues such as concerns about academic performance, school safety, bullying and political indoctrination as reasons why families are leaving public schools.
“Parents are saying what they feel about the public school system with their feet,” Long said. “If they can find a school that best meets the need of their children, they would and are.”
DO SOME VOUCHER SCHOOLS DISCRIMINATE?
Statewide, more than two-thirds of private school students are attending religious schools. Most Opportunity Scholarship students are using their voucher to attend a religious school.
Public Schools First outlined in a report last month concerns it had with the admissions policies of some of the schools receiving voucher students.
For instance, some Christian schools won’t enroll students who are LGBTQ or who follow other religions.
Some private schools won’t accept students who have disabilities or fail to meet minimum academic requirements. I
n contrast, Public Schools First points to how public schools are required by law to accept all students.
“If private schools want to discriminate, they should not do it with taxpayer dollars,” Koons said. “Public Schools First does not believe taxpayer funds should go to discriminatory institutions.”
SCHOOL CHOICE LEGISLATION
Republicans have been using their legislative supermajority to pass major school choice legislation this year.
▪ The House passed a bill that eliminated income eligibility requirements to receive an Opportunity Scholarship. GOP lawmakers are also negotiating how much to increase voucher funding in the new state budget
▪ Lawmakers are scheduled to vote next week on overriding Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of a charter school omnibus bill. The bill includes changes such as eliminating growth restrictions on charter schools that are not low performing.
▪ Lawmakers are also scheduled to vote next week on overriding Cooper’s veto of a bill that strips the State Board of Education’s authority over charter schools. It would transfer approvals and renewals of charter schools to a board mainly appointed by lawmakers.
Traditional public schools need to address why families are leaving them or they will continue to lose more students, Long warned.
“We don’t want to see public schools fail,” Long said. “We want them to succeed.. But if you stay on the same path with the same old system ....’