NC Family President John L. Rustin talks with Darrell Allison, President of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, a statewide organization that seeks and supports greater educational opportunities for parents and students through school choice.
INTRODUCTION: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Our guest today is Darrell Allison, President of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, a statewide organization that seeks and supports greater educational opportunities for parents and students through school choice. We at NC Family are privileged to partner with Darrell and PEFNC to pursue expanded schools choice options in North Carolina and we are going to be discussing today some of the positive developments that we’ve seen in the state, including the expansion of the state’s two scholarship programs that enhance parents’ ability to choose the best educational option for their children, regardless of where they live or their financial circumstance. Darrell, welcome back to Family Policy Matters, it’s great to have you on the show again.
DARRELL ALLISON: John, it’s a pleasure to be with you and your listeners.
JOHN RUSTIN: Thank you Darrell! We appreciate you so much and the great work that Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina does. We have been working together for many years to expand school choice opportunities in the Tar Heel State. And, in just the last 20 years, North Carolina’s educational landscape has really changed dramatically to include a very robust home school community, excellent options in the realm of private and parochial schools, charter public schools, and two scholarship programs that help families cover the cost of non-public education for qualified students. Darrell, let’s start with charter schools, talk a little bit about those. What is the purpose of the charter school program in North Carolina, and how have parents and students responded to these schools over the years?
DARRELL ALLISON: They’re different than many of our traditional public schools. Public charter schools are not assigned to families, in this case parents choose to enroll their children in public charter schools, not the other way around. Where traditional public schools are limited to a particular district or a particular school zone, public charter schools are not restricted by lines. In many cases, these schools often enroll children from four to five different counties in North Carolina, as long as that public charter school has seats. Public charter schools have less bureaucracy and what I mean by that is they don’t have to answer to a local school board, and then a state school board, unlike many of our traditional schools. Public charter schools have their own school board where they have to ultimately answer to the State Board of Education. Thus, public charter schools are tuition-free schools that have great flexibility in introducing new learning strategies and teaching models to communities across the state. What’s been the response from parents? Since 2011, we’ve had over 67 percent growth of public charter schools in just five years that educate over 100 students. And even with these strong, robust growth numbers, North Carolina still has a waiting list of families desiring these schools that are in the tens of thousands, statewide.
JOHN RUSTIN: Darrell, I know in 2011, lawmakers eliminated the arbitrary cap on the number of charter schools that can operate in North Carolina. The cap was set at 100 and then that was removed. Why was that move significant, and what has happened to the number and quality of charter schools in North Carolina since that time?
DARRELL ALLISON: In 2011, as you mentioned, North Carolina had actually—and this is pretty powerful with the legislature bill was in response. North Carolina had actually in 2011 reached a cap of 100 public charter schools, the first time in history. Back in 1996, we had set the cap at 100 and North Carolina hit the cap the first time in history in 2011. So more of those 100 public charter schools, they only existed in 47 of the 100 counties in North Carolina. And when you look at that number, 100 public charter schools only in 47 counties, we had over 30,000 students that were on waiting lists for those 100 public charter schools. So, legally the only way for us to alleviate this problem was to address the cap of 100 in 2011. Fortunately, our legislature did not just raise the cap on public charter schools, they eliminated the cap on public charter schools, and as a result John, where we had on public charter schools in 47 counties, we now have public charter schools in 60 counties of the 100. As we all know with the 100 counties, we still have 40 counties that don’t have one yet, so we still have some work to do. But there’s no debating the fact that the elimination of the cap of public charter schools has allowed for more urban and rural counties to blossom in counties and districts where they never previously existed. As we all know, when you look at the data from the Department of Public Instruction and you look at the data points in terms of children that are really challenged in the traditional, you know, kind of one-size-fits-all traditional public school model, you find that the more serious issues there in the mostly urban and mostly rural counties. So, the thought is that with this now public school option, that being a public charter school, hopefully there’s another offering there that where this school model under the public school umbrella’s not working for families, maybe this public charter school option could be a very viable option for families.
JOHN RUSTIN: Darrell, I know in just the last few years, lawmakers have also enacted two different scholarship programs in North Carolina. One of these is the Children with Disabilities Scholarship Grant. Describe a little bit for our listeners about this grant. Who is eligible for this type of grant? How are recipients chosen, and how can these scholarships be used?
DARRELL ALLISON: In 2011, in addition to eliminating the cap on public charter schools, North Carolina enacted its first private school choice program, called the Children with Disabilities Scholarship Grant. This scholarship grant helps parents pay for qualified expenses for children with disabilities who attend school in an eligible private setting or in an eligible public setting for which tuition would be required. To name a few eligibility requirements: a child has to have a disability and they would have had to obtain an individualized education plan, IEP, previously from a North Carolina public school; The child must be at least five by August 31, but younger than 22. That child must meet one of the following requirements: They either have to have been previously approved to receive the grant; or have to have been enrolled in a North Carolina school from the previous semester; or have to have been enrolled in a Department of Defense school; just to name a few. The Children with Disabilities Scholarship Grant is on a first-come, first-served basis. The program allows for families to be reimbursed up to $4,000 per semester for education expenses, which is a total of $8,000 per year.
JOHN RUSTIN: Our listeners may also be aware that North Carolina has another scholarship program, the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which is open to a broader constituency of parents and students across the state. Darrell, tell us about this program, and who it is designed to help?
DARRELL ALLISON: The Opportunity Scholarship Program, passed in 2013, empowers low-income parents whose children are currently in public schools to select a private school by way of a scholarship in the amount of $4,000, up to $4,200. I think the program is actually accurately titled the “Opportunity” Scholarship Program because unfortunately in North Carolina, only 40 percent of economically disadvantaged children attending public schools are proficient on state end-of-grade tests. Moreover, almost all public schools that earned an “F” on the state report cards are high-poverty schools. Therefore, this program provides an opportunity for those parents, for those families seeking a way to avoid these woeful statistics for their children where they hopefully find that school that can best serve their children’s needs.
JOHN RUSTIN: And we’ve seen a lot of responsiveness to this program since its inception in North Carolina. Darrell, how can parents determine if they are eligible for either of these two scholarship programs, and where and how can they go about applying for them? And also, is it too late for families to apply for these programs for this current school year?
DARRELL ALLISON: For this fall 2016, the application window is now closed. However, I want our listeners to know that we only have a few months away for 2017 application enrollment. That application window opens February 1, 2017. So it’s not too soon for families—I really encourage our families to do this—it’s not too soon for them to start visiting various schools in their area, private schools in their area, meeting with the various school leaders of those schools. Because that starts the process of those who may be interested to learn more. Those families should visit schoolchoicenc.org so that’s schoolchoicenc.org where they will get answers to a few questions. Moreover, this site schoolchoicenc.org will take families through a small exercise to see if they may pre-qualify for an Opportunity Scholarship Program. Now to officially apply for the Opportunity Scholarship Program, and also for the Children with Disabilities Scholarship Grant, the parents should visit North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority’s website. Now, it’s a mouthful, so maybe it’d just be better to visit ncseaa.edu. That’s where you officially apply for both the Children with Disabilities Grant and this one in particular, The Opportunity Scholarship Program. That’s the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority. The windows are closed on both of those right now so that those families right now who want to learn a little bit more, they should visit schoolchoicenc.org.
JOHN RUSTIN: Darrell, since the inception of these two programs, applications have grown tremendously every year. Parents for Educational Freedom has done a tremendous job of not only helping parents navigate the application process for both of these programs, but also of sharing the stories of families and students whose lives have been dramatically changed by the opportunities that these scholarships have afford them. Y’all have just done a wonderful, wonderful job of this and sharing those stories. What kind of growth in interest and availability have we seen in these first few years of these programs?
DARRELL ALLISON: To be very candid, the demand for these programs since 2011, with the Children with Disabilities Grant and the Opportunities Scholarship Grant, has been astonishing. We’ve had nearly 25,000 applications come in from all 100 North Carolina counties for these two programs since their inception. As relates to the Opportunity Scholarship Program, within the first four months of 2016 application cycle alone, we had over 8,500 applications float in from across the state. So I think the numbers speak for themselves in terms of the interest and desire for families like these for programs like these.
JOHN RUSTIN: That’s great. Darrell, I know that the General Assembly, just this session, increased the Opportunity Scholarship program and funding for those programs over the next 10 years as part of a comprehensive commitment to increased education funding in North Carolina. What were some of the most notable portions of this year’s education budget, as far as school choice is concerned?
DARRELL ALLISON: First, public K-12 education funding was increased by $512 million. I always like to lead with this figure because I think it’s important for all of us to know and to remember that the vast majority of families will choose the traditional public schools. So where we have nearly 1.5 million children educated there, we must have adequate funding to educate them. And again, nearly a half billion additional dollars. Now as it relates to the Disability Scholarship Grant, there was an increase of nearly $6 million for families, and this was critically important, because we had nearly 500 children with disabilities on the waiting list for this fall for this program. They were on a waiting list because we had run out of funds, new funds, for those new students. And we thank God that this budget provided more than enough for these families to enroll their children into the program for this fall. And then lastly, we had an historic investment of nearly $145 million into the Opportunity Scholarship Program that will be distributed over the next 10 years. So this will ultimately fund scholarships to nearly 36,000 low-income children who otherwise would be trapped in failing public schools. So we have a lot to be grateful about. And again, I really do appreciate the strong leadership in really looking at K-12 education in a very comprehensive manner so that we can honestly, truly start beginning to say that, regardless in North Carolina of your income and zip code, you too can have a pathway to obtain that adequate education for your children.
JOHN RUSTIN: Darrell, unfortunately we’re nearly out of time for this week, but I do want to give you an opportunity to let our listeners know where they can go to learn more about Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, and the great work that you all are doing to expand school choice options for parents and students in North Carolina.
DARRELL ALLISON: John, thank you once again. It’s good to communicate and connect with your listeners. They can visit our website at pefnc.org, or also visit schoolchoicenc.org, schoolchoicenc.org. They can also follow us on Twitter @pefnc and even Like us on Facebook.
JOHN RUSTIN: And with that, Darrell Allison, I want to thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters and for your incredibly important and effective work in expanding school choice options for parents and students across North Carolina.
DARRELL ALLISON: John, I’ve enjoyed my time speaking with you and your listeners. I couldn’t be happier of how our great state of North Carolina has become a real national leader in education reform, we’re truly humbled and so blessed.
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