Parental choice in education has gone mainstream in North Carolina. Among those notables who seem not to have gotten the memo yet is the governor of North Carolina, Roy Cooper.
According to the latest data, approximately 20% of school-aged children in our state are being educated in settings outside of local school districts. About 6% attend charter schools, which are public schools governed by independent boards rather than districts. Another 6% attend private schools, with or without government assistance. And 8% are homeschooled.
That 20% share for school choice represents a significant increase since the mid-1990s, when the state legislature first authorized charter schools. Still, it understates the extent of parental choice in North Carolina because it leaves out the families who successfully gain access to district-run schools other than the one to which they were assigned, such as magnets and specialized high schools.
Moreover, it leaves out what is simultaneously the oldest, the most cumbersome, and the most unfair school-choice program in North Carolina: relocation. If affluent parents don’t like the public school to which their children are assigned, they often have the financial wherewithal to move to another assignment zone, or even a neighboring school district, where they deem their assigned school to be of higher quality. This is not an option the typical parent of modest means can exercise.
Parents can, of course, make poor educational choices for the children, just as they can make poor financial or medical choices. We are all imperfect human beings doing the best we can with the information and resources available.
But I see no reason to believe — and plenty of reasons to doubt — that politicians and district administrators will, on average, make better choices. Most of the time, parents know things about their children’s particular needs and characteristics than no one else could know. And most of the time, parents are more emotionally invested in their children’s success than anyone else could ever be.
One reason the share of North Carolina children attending schools outside of districts has surged to 20%, and is likely to rise more in the coming years, is that North Carolina has significantly expanded the range of available options. While I’m glad some of our school districts have implemented magnet schools and open-enrollment policies, these policies aren’t sufficient. It’s too hard to get into high-demand magnets. And district schools are often too similar to provide a true spectrum of choices.
That’s why the General Assembly decided to broaden school choice. It removed an artificial cap on the number of charter schools. It enacted opportunity scholarships so lower-income families could access private education if that is the best option for their children. And the legislature created school-choice options for children with special needs.
Creating more choice and competition in North Carolina education is not inconsistent with enhancing the performance of district-run public schools. Indeed, I think choice programs and public-school reform are mutually reinforcing. Competition is a good thing in most fields of human endeavor, very much including education.
Gov. Roy Cooper, alas, is among a rump group of grumpy politicians who think school choice has gotten out of hand. He wants to reimpose tight caps on charters and get rid of state vouchers for private education altogether.
Cooper is out of step with North Carolina voters, as a recent Civitas Institute poll showed. Two-thirds of survey respondents support the state’s voucher program, including majorities of Republicans (70%), Democrats (69%), and unaffiliated voters (62%).
Most North Carolinians also support charters, and 69% said if a candidate favors school choice, that would make them more likely to vote for that candidate. Only 16% said a candidate supporting it would be less likely to earn their vote.
Opponents dream that one day they will amass enough power in state government to roll back North Carolina’s progress on school choice. It’s a fantasy. Attempting to do so would cost them that power.