The bright future of school choice in North Carolina

By Andrew Campanella

March 21, 2024

For years, parents across North Carolina have demanded greater access to schools and learning environments that would better meet their children’s interests, talents and needs. Now, these demands have transformed into new opportunities.

Late last year, the North Carolina legislature heeded parents’ calls, expanding the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program so that all families could apply for scholarships to make private schooling more affordable. On Feb. 1, 2024, the state opened applications to the program for the first time since its expansion. Just minutes after going live, the application website crashed due to the overwhelming rush of newly eligible parents who were eager to apply.

The website was quickly repaired, and enthusiasm for school choice in the Tarheel State has only grown since. Since its inception in 2013, the Opportunity Scholarship program has grown from serving just over 1,200 students in 2014 to serving more than 32,000 students a decade later.

With this recent expansion, these numbers will only continue to increase, as approximately 50,000 scholarships are projected to be offered in the 2024-25 school year.

Over the past year, participation in the state’s Education Savings Account Program (ESA+) for students with special needs has more than tripled, too. Given that the ESA program is still relatively new, it still holds potential to unlock greater educational freedom for more families.

However, private school choice isn’t the only option for North Carolina families. The Tarheel State also offers some of the greatest public sector variety in the country, including charter schools, magnet schools and online schools.

Over 140,000 students are now enrolled at charter schools, marking a 19% growth since 2019. Magnet schools in North Carolina also continue to be some of the most widely available and popular in the country, with 263 schools serving 9.1% of students in the state.

Finally, North Carolina is home to the second largest state-led virtual school in the nation, North Carolina Virtual Public School, which enrolls over 58,000 students per year.

The combination of North Carolina’s growing private school choice programs and robust public sector options has led to an educational renaissance across the state. More than 400,000 of North Carolina’s students are now attending either public charters, private schools or are educated at home. This makes up 22% of school-aged children, the highest in the state’s history.

As these programs continue to grow in popularity, the next step for North Carolina should be to continue monitoring its programs to ensure that parents receive the highest quality service without facing any bureaucratic barriers while accessing their options.

It is also crucial that any family in the state who wants to learn more about the new options available to their children can easily access this information. According to our research, 64% of parents nationwide say they wish they had more information about the options that are available for their children’s education. This is where effective organizations like Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, CarolinaCAN, and the North Carolina Association of Public Charter Schools come in. These organizations help families navigate their options while raising broad awareness on how kids can benefit from new or expanded education options.

Finally, as North Carolina looks at further expanding these options, it could consider making it easier for families to choose traditional public schools outside of their zones or districts. North Carolina is one of only two states that have an official public school “open enrollment” policy.

The future of school choice in North Carolina is bright, and the Tarheel State has taken great leaps in providing families with new ways to help their children learn, thrive and succeed. Hopefully, the state will continue down this path as the calls from parents for new education options only grow louder.