The rapid growth of school choice options brought on by the pandemic shows no signs of letting up as the calendar turns over to 2023.
Recent statistics show that for the 2021-2022 school year, there were 115,311 students enrolled in K-12 private schools, 160,528 in homeschools, and another 132,909 enrolled in public charter schools. Part of what’s fed the increase in parents looking for alternatives is the fact that many private schools remained opened during the COVID-19 pandemic, while state and local government forced traditional public school classrooms to close.
One example is Catholic private schools. Leading up to the pandemic, many of these schools were facing steady enrollment declines. But now, Catholic schools nationwide saw a 3.5% bump in enrollments during the pandemic, from 1.63 million to 1.69 million.
In North Carolina specifically, families are benefiting from the state’s two school-choice programs — the Opportunity Scholarship Program and the Education Savings Account. Nearly 23,000 students are receiving an Opportunity Scholarship, an award up to $6,168 per semester, per student to attend a private school for low- and middle-income families.
More good news came for Opportunity Scholarship families with the results of the midterm election. Republicans took a decision majority on the state Supreme Court, making it unlikely that governing body will strike down the program.
Demand for the Education Savings Account saw a 44% leap comparing the current school year with the previous one, according to data from the N.C. State Education Assistance Authority.
Prior to the current school year, two separate support programs were available for students with special needs attending schools of choice — the Children with Disabilities Grant and Education Savings Accounts. The 2021 budget combined both programs into one — now known as ESA+ — to ensure adequate funding and reduce waitlists.
Under the ESA+, most students are awarded $9,000 annually to be used for tuition and fees at private schools, tutoring, educational therapies, curriculum, or technology. Students with certain designated disabilities are eligible for $17,000 a year.
“Those who doubt the appeal of school choice should ask about the topic with one of the many parents who sought — and sometimes even fought — for different education options for their children,” said Dr. Robert Luebke, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation. “They wanted and their children needed something better than what many schools were offering during the pandemic. Americans readily expect to be able to choose a doctor, choose a car and choose a career. Isn’t it time to finally allow parents a choice when making one of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child — an education.”
Meanwhile, public charter schools in North Carolina have experienced a boom during the pandemic years. The National Alliance for Charter Schools found that charter school enrollments jumped by 14,312 new students from the 2019-2020 school year to the 2021-2022 school year. That brought total enrollments from 118,597 students to 132,909 students, a 12% gain.
Contrary to arguments that charter schools are not diverse or even that they promote racial segregation in schools, the report noted that student enrollments for black students in North Carolina grew at the same pace as for white students. Enrollments for black students jumped by 14% during the pandemic, while enrollments for Hispanic students increased by 23%.
For the nation as a whole, charter enrollments grew by nearly 240,000 students during the pandemic, while traditional public school enrollments dipped by nearly 1.5 million students.