Parental school choice represents a simple but powerful idea: parents should be empowered to decide which school best meets their child’s needs, regardless of their address or income. Parents might decide that a traditional public school, a public charter school, a private school, or even a home school is the best educational environment for their child. But the bottom line is that they, not someone else, get to make this choice.
North Carolina offers parents a range of traditional and non-traditional schooling options as well as three state-sponsored private school choice programs. In fact, over 380,000 students in North Carolina now attend non-traditional schools―either through public charter schools, private schools or home schools.
Here’s a look at the current K-12 landscape in North Carolina, by the numbers:
- Public school enrollment: Nearly 1.4M students LEARN MORE
- Public charter school enrollment: Over 127,000 students LEARN MORE
- Private school enrollment: Over 103,000 students LEARN MORE
- Home school enrollment: nearly 150,000 students LEARN MORE
*Source: North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI), NCDPI Office of Charter Schools, and North Carolina Division of Non-Public Education
Private school choice initiatives are state-sponsored scholarship programs that offset the cost of school tuition for families. Some states, including North Carolina, provide tuition scholarships directly to families; other states have passed programs creating education tax credits for taxpayers who give money to scholarship granting organizations. Some programs allow individuals to receive a tax credit or deduction for education expenses, including tuition.
Private school choice programs are generally created to serve the needs of families that otherwise would not be able to afford private school tuition. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, passed in 1990, is the nation’s longest-running contemporary private school choice initiative. This program currently serves almost 29,000 low-income students.
In 2013 North Carolina joined the ranks of states with private school choice programs for low-income students when the General Assembly passed the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP). OSP launched officially during the 2014-15 school year. These state-sponsored scholarships are funded at up to $4,200 a year and are renewable annually for eligible families.
OSP has experienced surging popularity and growth with each successive year.To date, North Carolina families have submitted more than 60,000 applications for this scholarship. Forward-funding of $145M by the North Carolina General Assembly will ensure OSP continues to expand over the next decade, and will eventually provide up to 36,000 students with private school scholarships. Click HERE for PEFNC's 1-pager on OSP.
Fast Facts on the Opportunity Scholarship Program:
- 14,720 students have accepted Opportunity Scholarships to attend private schools for 2020-21.
- Over 2,100 low-income students remain on the Opportunity Scholarship waitlist for the current school year.
- Over 500 North Carolina private schools currently enroll Opportunity Scholarship students. The number of participating private schools with students enrolled has risen more than 80% since 2014-15.
Interested in applying for an Opportunity Scholarship? Learn more here about eligibility requirements, application deadlines, and whether your family might pre-qualify.
Special needs school choice programs help families meet the unique educational challenges and gifts of their children who have disabilities. These publicly-funded programs enable students to attend the school that best addresses their particular needs while offsetting the burden of tuition for their families. Special needs school choice programs exist because public schools are unable to meet the individual needs of every student.
At least 13 states, including North Carolina, currently offer some form of school choice program for special needs students. Learn more about North Carolina’s special needs school choice program, the Children with Disabilities Scholarship Grant.
In 2017 the North Carolina General Assembly created a second state-sponsored special needs school choice program, the Special Needs Education Savings Account (ESA). PEFNC led the effort to advocate for this program. Learn more about Special Needs ESAs at exceptionaednc.org.
Public charter schools are independent, tuition-free, public schools with greater operational and educational freedom than traditional public schools. However, public charter schools are required to participate in the same state testing and accountability program as traditional public schools. They earn annual report card grades from the state based on school achievement and academic growth, just like traditional public schools. Unlike traditional public schools, however, public charter schools can be closed if they fail to meet academic or operational standards.
Nationwide over 7,100 charter schools serve more than 3.1 million students. In North Carolina in 2020-2021, 200 public charter schools are operating across the state, enrolling over 127,000 pupils from over 65 counties.
Charter schools are popular with parents: a 2019 report from CIVITAS found that 76 percent of respondents support public charter schools.