It’s no secret that COVID-19 has upended nearly every aspect of our lives. But what may surprise many North Carolinians is the pandemic’s impact on education in our state.
Newly released figures from the state show a dramatic acceleration of the decade-long trend of parents moving their children from traditional public schools to home, private, and charter schools.
How much shifted during the pandemic? Homeschool families increased by a record 20.6 percent in 2020-21 from the prior year—swelling its ranks with more than 30,000 new students and 19,294 new home schools, a record 103 percent increase from 2019-20.
At the same time there was a 7.7 percent increase in charter school students and a 3.3 percent increase in private school students—the largest single-year gain since 1997. In contrast, enrollment in traditional public schools dropped 5 percent, falling by 70,000 students.
To put these numbers in perspective, approximately 23 percent of North Carolina families sent their children to a home, private, or charter school last year—more than double since 2012-13. There are now more students in home schools statewide than in Wake County, the state’s largest district. And we now have a record 783 private schools in the state, an increase of 32 from the previous year.
While it is true that parents made difficult decisions about their children’s education last year based on many factors, the chaotic implementation of Plans A, B, and C by state officials made it easy for thousands of North Carolinians to leave traditional public schools. It might be too early to tell how many children will return to public schools in the future, but one thing is clear: The demand for school choice is here to stay. State education funding should prioritize students over systems.
This means that as we move into the next phase of the pandemic we must expand support for the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), which levels the playing field by making all models of education—traditional public, public charter, private and homeschool—accessible, regardless of income, race or zip code.
Listen to the voices of parents. Thanks to OSP, two of Deana’s grandchildren switched to a private school during the pandemic. “One child was not challenged academically and it worsened during remote learning,” Deana shared. “I knew that remote learning was not going to work and they needed a better option. Private school provided in-person learning and this grandchild developed more independence and advanced academically. My other grandchild was able to make friends and was safe from bullying. This was a blessing for us as a family.”
While stories like Deana’s are common for families in the OSP, our state’s largest and most powerful teachers union, the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), stands firmly opposed to funding that gives parents more flexibility to choose the best (and safest) learning environment for their children.
Instead of supporting budget proposals that help students by raising the income cap for Opportunity Scholarships and increasing the top award amount—while streamlining programs like the Children with Disabilities Grant and Education Savings Accounts to reduce wait lists—the NCAE is busy preserving its institutional turf and crusading for radical causes like critical race theory.
The NCAE is not only out-of-step with most North Carolinians but also an increasing number of teachers. Over the last decade the hyper-partisan and political organization has lost more membership and revenue than any other National Education Association affiliate. Since 2010-11, NCAE’s active membership declined 58.7 percent—so that it now represents only about 18 percent of public school teachers in the state. Over the same period, its revenues declined 47%—from $11.02 million to $5.8 million.
The pandemic has ushered in a sea change in how parents think about their children’s education. Many who would have never previously considered alternatives to traditional public schools now embrace expanded education options that allow their children to learn in the environment that best suits them. School choice creates opportunity for all and is widely supported across the political spectrum. It is time that elected leaders in North Carolina support our children over groups in decline like the NCAE.
Mike Long is president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.