Despite signs of progress, the latest test results show that most North Carolina students have yet to regain the ground lost during the pandemic.

There are at least three barriers to academic recovery.

First is chronic absenteeism. Compared to five years ago, the number of chronically absent students has doubled.

Second, there has been a disturbing increase in violence in many schools, as educators struggle to reestablish routines and expectations for a traumatized student population.

And third, and much less understood, is a flood of evictions. Over this past year, eviction filings in North Carolina increased by at least 70%, as federal rental-assistance program from the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan winds down.

A public school system built on attendance zones means that many evicted students will be forced to change schools if their new address isn’t in the same attendance zone. In some cases, students who move into a different school’s attendance zone — and who may already be struggling with their studies — may be forced to switch teachers, peer groups, and neighborhoods midyear.

But imagine, for a moment, what it would mean if we finally replaced our practice of residential assignment with a system that actually empowered families, especially those with lower incomes, to make schooling choices independent of their residential ones.

As we show in a new study, charter school students are less likely to change schools when they change addresses. After all, charters don’t have attendance zones, so provided they can find transportation, nothing prevents families from keeping their kids in a charter if and when they change homes. This wouldn’t be a great solution if charters were bad learning environments for kids. But evidence suggests the opposite.

In North Carolina, as in most other places, black and Hispanic students who enroll in charter schools in grades 3-8 make more progress in reading than their counterparts in traditional public schools. Similarly, ninth graders who enroll in North Carolina’s charters are significantly less likely to be chronically absent or commit a crime than otherwise similar students in traditional public schools. (Other types of non-zoned schools, such as early college high schools, are also quite successful.)

Consequently, enrolling in a charter school or another school of choice may be particularly beneficial for low-income students of color who are more likely to be residentially mobile, more likely to face eviction, and more likely to benefit from a charter school education. 

Of course, charter schools aren’t a silver bullet. As we note in our report, North Carolina is a national outlier when it comes to the racial and socioeconomic composition of its charter sector, which has become increasingly white and affluent. And charter schools don’t have to provide transportation or lunch to their students, which is particularly challenging for low-income students.

Still, the consequences of the scarcity of school choice options for poorer North Carolina families are clear enough.

During COVID, a dearth of alternatives meant thousands of North Carolina students were effectively denied an education when their neighborhood schools closed their doors.

And, in the coming months, what school choice advocates refer to as the “the tyranny of zip code” will force thousands of evicted North Carolina kids to change schools at precisely the moment when they don’t need such a change. Meanwhile, there is still little recourse in some parts of the state for those who want to change schools.

Lest the point be missed, all of these challenges disproportionately affect students in traditionally disadvantaged communities.

But what if we started a new tradition that was grounded in equal opportunity?

To that end, we recommend that policymakers take four steps: First, find ways to loosen the restrictions in zoned schools to allow more students who change addresses to avoid changing schools, perhaps through expanding bussing to nonzoned schools. Second, expand charter school enrollment in underserved areas of the state, especially those with high proportions of low-income students of color. Third, encourage more charter schools to use weighted lotteries that give preferences to low-income students. Finally, create and expand funding sources to support transportation and meals in charter schools.

Recognizing the need, the state legislature now spends $2.1 million annually to support a grant program that offsets some of transportation costs for charters serving high shares of low-income families. It remains uncertain, however, whether this program fully meets the need. The state has also received a federal grant to encourage charters to reach low-income families. We applaud these efforts and urge the state to do more.