Marjorie is a mother from Asheville whose oldest child experienced a negative bullying environment in their assigned public school, while her youngest struggled academically.
Today, their story looks very different, thanks to educational empowerment and the North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship program. By way of reminder, the Opportunity Scholarship program provides tuition assistance for families who might not be able to afford private school, even if they believe that is the best option for their child.
“Now, both my children are on the Opportunity Scholarship program and attend a wonderful private school,” she says. “They are both ‘A’ students and the environment and culture is anti-bullying. They have friends and they are in a supportive setting. They are in a safe place.”
Sadly, bullying is a huge problem for many students in North Carolina and across the nation. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, one out of five students (20.2%) reported being bullied in 2019, the most recent year with available data. Here in North Carolina, the percentage of high school students who say they have been bullied in the past 12 months is similar—at 20%, with 60% reporting that they have witnessed bullying at school.
Let that sink in. It’s heartbreaking. Something has to change.
Many groups call for anti-bullying programs in public schools that raise awareness about the problem and encourage students, teachers, administrators, and parents to report incidents and take steps to create a safer learning environment. There are valid concerns about allowing bullied students to remain in the environment where their trauma occurred.
As the debate over how to stop bullying in schools continues, many North Carolina parents now see school choice as the preferred way to rescue their children from a bullying environment in traditional public schools. For them, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown them that they have options they never thought they had before.
Aleesha and her family from Raleigh are another example. “My children all have different needs but experienced horrible bullying within the traditional school setting,” she says. “I was not supported by the school or district in stopping the bullying. We had to get our children out of the situation. We had to look at other options. Our children now attend both an online and in-person public charter school. There is no tolerance for bullying and my children feel supported. The school focuses on character education and is very diverse. My children are learning academically and are doing well in all their classes.”
Clearly, many parents see educational freedom as a lifesaver for their bullied children. According to a 2018 survey of likely voters conducted by the American Federation for Children, nearly two-thirds support school choice—including 41% who strongly support it. And support is even higher among African-Americans and Latinos.
Despite this, the education establishment wants parents to only have one option—locally zoned public schools. Again, this begs the question: Does a system that assigns students to schools based on geography—and not what they need—trap some in dangerous situations with no escape from their bullies?
Obviously, no parent wants their child to attend a school where they feel unsafe and frightened. This is why we believe that empowering parents with a wide range of school choice options through programs like the Opportunity Scholarship is an effective way to address bullying and protect vulnerable children by placing them in environments where they feel comfortable, accepted, and can better thrive physically, emotionally, and academically.
Perhaps Lakesha from Winston-Salem sums it up best: “I appreciate the Opportunity Scholarship program because it has given my children a chance to learn in a bully-free non-judgmental learning environment where the teachers actually care to teach.”
Mike Long is president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.