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Raleigh rally celebrates National School Choice Week

Students from East Voyager Academy in Charlotte perform a traditional Chinese dance for attendees at the Raleigh school choice rally in celebration of National School Choice Week. (CJ photo by Lindsay Marchello)
Students from East Voyager Academy in Charlotte perform a traditional Chinese dance for attendees at the Raleigh school choice rally in celebration of National School Choice Week. (CJ photo by Lindsay Marchello)

Victor Clifton has a full scholarship to Duke University. He credited his school, Henderson Collegiate High School, with helping make this possible.

“After all my years at Henderson Collegiate, I finally and truly understand the value of the school,” Clifton said.

Clifton was just one of many who shared their own school choice experiences during a rally Tuesday, Jan. 22, celebrating National School Choice Week.

National School Choice Week began in 2011 and has since featured thousands of events across the country celebrating choice in education. The Raleigh rally at The Fairview was just one of a little more than 1,000 NSCW events in North Carolina.

Tuesday’s rally featured musical and dance performances. Students from Gate City Charter Academy sang the National Anthem, and students from East Voyager Academy in Charlotte performed a traditional Chinese dance. Durham’s Voyager Academy students performed a song and dance routine, while four students from Cardinal Charter Academy shared what school choice meant to them.

Rhonda Dillingham, executive director of the N.C Association of Public Charter Schools, said school choice is about finding the right school for each and every child.

“What might be a good school for one child might not be for another,” Dillingham said. “School choice allows parents to identify the best learning environment for their individual children.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest said North Carolina has made great strides in expanding school choice. Since the General Assembly lifted the charter school cap in 2011, the number of charter schools has grown to 185 schools, and it will probably grow even further.

Critics of charter schools say they siphon money from traditional public schools, leaving those schools underfunded. Forest said expanding school choice options isn’t about pitting various educational options against each other.

“What I have witnessed as lieutenant governor over the last six years is that there is great division among the education world,” Forest said. “When you say school choice, the hair on the back of some people’s necks stand up.”

Forest said school choice isn’t about institutions, but rather about providing educational options to parents and their children.

“Traditional public education is the choice of the vast majority of parents in North Carolina. Good for them, they made that choice,” Forest said. “Sometimes [they choose] magnet public schools, sometimes charter public schools, sometimes private schools. …”

Forest said some families have taken advantage of the Opportunity Scholarship program, which gives low-income families the chance to send their children to private schools through vouchers. Other families use the Education Savings Account, a program for eligible students with disabilities to receive financial aid to attend nonpublic schools or homeschool.

Aimee Viana, U.S. Department of Education deputy assistant secretary of the office of elementary and secondary education, said the goal is to educate families about available options.

“Choice is about freedom and the freedom to learn differently,” Viana said.

Courtney Samuelson, the 2018 North Carolina charter school teacher of the year, said too often a student’s zip code or socio-economic status determines the kind of education they receive. Choice, Samuelson said, can represent freedom, autonomy, and access to greater educational opportunities.

“Unfortunately, choice has historically belonged to people who are wealthy or have the resources,” Samuelson said. “But through the changes that other people have mentioned in North Carolina, we are giving choice to more and more families.”