Public school leaders embrace competition in age of school choice

Source: Jacob Emmons, Carolina Journal

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  • "If you want society to function well, for people to get along, if you want to mend the division that our country is seeing, you have to start in schools." Kayla Maloney, CALN

North Carolina has been fortunate to celebrate significant school choice victories recently, as an emphasis on educational freedom spreads across the country. The issue has taken on political dressings with leading Democrats like Gov. Roy Cooper attacking Republican lawmakers’ school choice legislation as coming at the expense of traditional public education resources. Republican activists, worried about indoctrination and insufficient academic performance, often mistakenly write off public schools as too far gone to rescue.

However, those focused on maximizing student success and community growth have come to understand the education question shouldn’t be framed as an ‘either/or’ equation.

These leaders are embracing the competition inherent in school choice and working to make their local public schools the best choice possible for the general community.

Last month at the Carolina Liberty Conference, hosted by the John Locke Foundation (JLF), attendees were fortunate to hear from some of these public school leaders.

Dr. Stephen Fisher, Superintendent of Cleveland County Schools, and Robert Queen, Chairman of Cleveland County Board of Education, led a breakout session focused on how they have been approaching the school choice era as an opportunity to make their local traditional K-12 public schools the best option for as many Cleveland County kids as possible.

One of the key takeaways from the accounts of Fisher, an education careerist, and Queen, a relative newbie until he ran for school board, was how earnest communication combined with a genuine shared interest in student success can foster a unified mission unafraid of competing to make public schools the right choice for your student. The honest partnership and practical approach has yielded encouraging success focused on student excellence, The session was sponsored by a group intent on cultivating such an ethos in school districts across the Carolinas: Carolinas Academic Leadership Network (CALN).

CALN website:

CALN is a collaboration between JLF, Palmetto Promise Institute, and the South Carolina Policy Council and is focused on providing fellowship, training, and support to local school board members in the Carolinas. Their goal is to promote a true commitment to student achievement, parental empowerment, and academic excellence among school board members while empowering them with the tools and skills to be as effective at embracing competition as Fisher and Queen have been in Cleveland County.

An affiliate of School Boards for Academic Excellence (SBAE), CALN was launched in June 2023 as a bridge over the growing schism between school choice advocates and ‘public-schools-only’ politicians. CALN project manager Kayla Maloney, who facilitated the Cleveland County education leaders’ CLC presentation, told Carolina Journal that the initiative is rapidly growing.

“Really our mission is to train school board members to prioritize academic achievement nd student success, and to not forget about the 75% of kids in North and South Carolina who are in traditional schools,” said Maloney. “We’ve already formed a lot of really meaningful contacts and relationships with [local education leaders], and seeking out potential school board candidates.”

Maloney publishes frequent updates on, CALN’s website, where they offer resources and training to be an effective school board candidate and member. They’re already preparing for a NC School Board Candidates and Community Primer event scheduled for April 20, as general election activities get into full swing, in Raleigh.

Part of that guidance is recognizing the foundational importance to academic excellence regardless of political agendas.

“I think people are really coming around to the fact that no matter what policy you’re really passionate about, whether it is taxes or social issues or anything like that, if you don’t have an educated population, you can’t accomplish anything that your agenda wants to accomplish down the line,” reflected Maloney.

“If you want society to function well, for people to get along, if you want to mend the division that our country is seeing, you have to start in schools. That means, if you’re focusing on social movements in schools, and kids aren’t learning those basic skills, you’re going to be in a very negative place down the line,” Maloney continued. “Those critical thinking skills and work ethic, mastering reading and writing skills, those are what you need if you want to make a positive difference in the world.”

Helping to maximize the positive difference effective school board members can have in our respective public education communities is what drives CALN, concluded Maloney, so families across the Carolinas have quality choices all around.