Opinion

Expanded school choice must be a pandemic lesson-learned

By now, we are all too familiar with the struggles of pandemic-era education for both families and schools. The last 18 months will go down as one of the most challenging times in our nation’s history for students, teachers, and parents.

For more evidence of learning loss, look no further than the latest round of test results showing the devastating impact of remote-only learning and school closures on public school students.

According to the data from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, only 45% of students passed end-of-grade tests during the last academic year. There was a 13.4% drop in the overall proficiency on state math, reading, and science tests. It is easy to let those statistics pass by without truly considering their ramifications. The bottom line is that about half of our public school students are failing during the pandemic. That should alarm every North Carolinian.

Even more concerning, the data show that low-income and minority students are suffering the worst, posting lower test scores than higher-income and white households. This is hardly surprising: Remote-only learning works best in households of means, where parents work flexible jobs or one parent can stay home and monitor instruction while the other works. Lower income households—disproportionately represented by people of color—lack these advantages.

Honest conversations about equity must include equity in education. That means access to education and an emphasis on funding students, not systems or bureaucracies. That is why we need school choice in the Tar Heel State now more than ever.

One of the beautiful aspects of school choice is that our focus as a movement is on students, not on preserving an archaic system that simply fails to deliver for many families in the 21st century. While public schools were closing left and right during the pandemic—shifting to forced remote-only learning that failed so many students—private schools were able to stay agile and adaptive to the needs of parents. While the remote-only instruction offered by public schools worked for many North Carolina families, many others were stuck in a system that fell short.

Thanks to our state’s trio of school-choice scholarships, many others had an opportunity to attend a private school that better fit their needs. Some families felt safer with a remote-only approach. Private schools delivered. Some felt better with a mixed hybrid approach of some time home, some time in the classroom. Again, private schools delivered. And other families preferred full-time, in-person instruction. Private schools delivered.

The key throughout all of this is choice. North Carolina is blessed that our state went into the pandemic with a strong base of educational options for parents—through our state’s school-choice scholarships, a growing network of charter schools, and a vibrant homeschool community. Much of that progress has been made in the past decade.

There is still work to be done. As the N.C. House and Senate work to resolve a compromise budget agreement to send to Gov. Roy Cooper, our expectation is that the final version will include key provisions expanding and strengthening school choice. That includes opening up the Opportunity Scholarship Program to thousands of new low- and moderate-income families and shoring up funding and accessibility for families of students with special needs.

The pandemic has made the need for school choice even more apparent. Results like our recent round of student testing show the need for options is more dire than ever.

Mike Long is president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.