North Carolina is one of the leading states in the school choice movement. There are more than 800 private schools across the state that play a key role in this, providing a variety of options that allow parents to choose the best learning environment for their children. To help parents access these valuable resources, North Carolina offers the Opportunity Scholarship which helps to remove financial barriers that would otherwise make attending nonpublic schools difficult or impossible for some children.
This week on Family Policy Matters, host Traci DeVette Griggs welcomes Mike Long, President of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, to discuss North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship and the impact it has on families across the state.
This episode is a part of a series highlighting the school choice movement across North Carolina. Tune in each week to learn more!
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. As a new school year approaches, we’re excited to bring you a series of interviews that will look at the many phases of education here in North Carolina, which is considered a school choice leader in the nation. Well, today we are joined by Mike Long, president of Parents for Educational Freedom, to take a look at the current school choice landscape in the state. And the most recent policy changes and discussions surrounding this very important topic. Mike Long, welcome back to Family Policy Matters.
MIKE LONG: Traci, always happy to talk to you.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So start, if you would, by laying the landscape for all of us about the variety of education options available here in North Carolina, and how many families and students are currently taking advantage of those options?
MIKE LONG: Sure, well, of all K 12 students in North Carolina, your traditional public schools have approximately 1.4 million or 78% of that population. Homeschools, about 160,000, public charter schools 136,000, private schools about 115,000. And in the private schools, about 25,000 of those students are enrolled in the Opportunity Scholarship Program. So it’s worth noting that in the last four years, we’ve seen public school enrollment decline, while enrollment in schools of choice have only increased where today, it’s 78% ratio versus a combined 22% of schools of choice. And that is very, very significant when it comes to the educational landscape here in North Carolina.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So how much of this is due to COVID? How much of it is due to just a general dissatisfaction with the public schools then?
MIKE LONG: A lot of it had to do with COVID, especially on the homeschool front where we saw the most dramatic increase, you know, parents needed choices. Schools were closed. And so they took matters into their own hands. And same with the private schools now that the Opportunity Scholarship Program is helping families make these decisions where economics is kind of laid aside. One of the major reasons why many families are not choosing a private school education is because they simply can’t afford it, and so that’s why this program is so unique for them, because it frees them from being in a school situation that is not working for their children, and they know what’s best. Those parents know what’s best for their children, and if you provide them the economic ability to choose what’s best, they certainly will. So yes, COVID did increase on all of these different areas of choice, almost more so than a dissatisfaction in general of the public schools, but that’s definitely a factor as well.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Well, you mentioned Opportunity Scholarships, and we are seeing some growth in that based on what the legislature is doing. Talk about what’s going to happen with that.
MIKE LONG: Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, we’ve always been the strongest advocate for expanding school choice at every opportunity, and so we anticipate a state budget coming here very soon that’s going to do just that. Two basic bills, House Bill 823, which passed the House, and Senate Bill 406, which was included in the Senate budget, those two pieces of legislation would expand the North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship Program so that all North Carolina families would be eligible to take a scholarship to the private school of their choice. And they do that, of course in their child’s name.
So this proposed expansion is going to create a tiered scholarship for families based on their income, which means the lower income families would receive most of the scholarship dollars and then it would be tiered towards income. The bottom line is we are reforming the education system as we know it so that educational dollars are following students not systems. And that’s exactly what this expansion does. It’s basically tiered on family income, I’ll give you an example. Families at, let’s just say 100% of free and reduced lunch, they would get about $7,500 in the scholarship. Those would be the families of lowest income. If it’s 200% of the free and reduced lunch it would be $6,400, 200% to 450% would be $4,500. And then if it’s 450%, that would be $3,300.
So obviously, it is measured on income, the program was founded for the lowest income families. But now recognizing the demand for this with all families, our legislators have been able to determine that, hey, we really need to provide this for all that need it, but we’re still going to do this on this kind of tiered level, so that those who need it the most will get the most benefit. Those who need it the least, of course, maybe a little bit less. And that’s the way it’s shaping up to be right now.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: But there’s not an unlimited pot of money, I assume.
MIKE LONG: No, there is not an unlimited pot of money. That’s right, the lower income families would get the priority. That is correct. Also, those that are currently on the scholarship program that renew it each year would also get priority.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So I’m going to give you an opportunity to address some of the concerns that we’re hearing about the Opportunity Scholarship and the changes that are being considered. So one is that it’s going to just really gut the public schools and a lot of people who are in the public schools and have to stay there are going to suffer. It’s also been suggested it has white supremacist roots. So how do you speak to that?
MIKE LONG: Well, yeah, those are the talking points of the teacher union and the far left that had battled this from day one, trying to make it sound like it’s going to take money away from the public schools when it never has. I mean, North Carolina, our state budget, there’s nearly $12 billion associated strictly for the public school system that accommodates that 1.4 million students, we’re only talking about $200 million here in the first year of alternative resources to be able to fund this, it’s not taking anything away from public schools.
As a matter of fact, public school allocations have been going up every single year. At the same time, when you talk about the fact that many parents choose to use these dollars to put their children in either private schools or other forms of school choice, you’re reducing the class sizes of the public schools. So their income is going up, so to speak, while their class sizes are coming down. And what we’re saying is, this is real education reform. This is where money follows the child.
And so what I would say to those folks is, you need to be asking the question why? Why are so many parents in our state choosing other types of educational opportunities for their children? And once you begin to answer the questions as to why they are leaving you, then you can address those whys to be able to improve and therefore want them to stay. So we see this as an opportunity for all schools to improve, and that includes the public schools.
And regarding your question on segregation, I can tell you as a former head of a private school in Charlotte, we found that the Opportunity Scholarship and other financial means actually helped us diversify our student population even more. We found that when we wanted to diversify, one of the main reasons that many parents could not is simply the economics of it. And so when these parents received Opportunity Scholarships, it gave them the economic opportunity to come to our school, which created greater diversification in our student population. So really, these scholarship programs are helping bring more diversity into private schools and other schools of choice rather than any type of segregation argument. That’s just a complete fallacy.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Another criticism would be that there’s not the demand there for these kinds of scholarships. Is that what you’re finding?
MIKE LONG: Well, we’re finding totally the opposite. There’s great demand. This year, there’s about 25,000 students on the Opportunity Scholarship, last year there were 20,000, the year before that was 16,000, and the year before that was 13,000. So you know, every year since the program was created, more and more students had been granted the Opportunity Scholarship than the year before. So demand has only grown, and recipients have only grown, all while traditional school enrollment continues to decline. I mean, we’ve got thousands of parents and families and students in our state who have sought out and applied for and been granted scholarships since 2014. And also the schools have grown. The Opportunity Scholarship has grown from 333 schools back in 2015, to 544 schools in 2023. So there is no lack of demand. There’s also currently a waiting list for scholarships. And when you’ve got 88% to 90% of scholarship recipients last year renewing the very next year, that’s just nothing but demand and solid growth.
So think about it. If it’s offered to all families, how much more will that grow, when the only hindrance from them making a different choice for their children’s education is the economics, when you take that out of the equation, it could grow even more. And that’s why we are suggesting that those who are, like us, are strong advocates of public schools, you need to be addressing the questions as to why these families are leaving you, and once you get the answers to those questions, make the changes that need to be made to keep them there. It’s not about money. It’s about all of these other concerns that parents have as to why they’re leaving.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Alright, well, let’s talk a minute about charter schools. Because we have a lot of new families moving to North Carolina, they may not understand that charter schools are public schools, talk a little bit about charter schools for us.
MIKE LONG: Well, charter schools are indeed public schools. Many people don’t realize that. They are indeed public schools, but they have the ability to govern and operate their school at the school level, like through a local charter school board and that kind of thing. And that gives them the autonomy and the flexibility to serve their students and meet their needs according to their individual mission. They’re funded similarly to traditional public schools, but most consistent reports show that public charter schools receive anywhere between 65 to 80 cents on the dollar compared to their traditional public school counterparts.
And we’ve long advocated for fair funding for public charter schools and things like the charter omnibus bill, this session will help on that front. And we’re very, very strong supporters of that. And so public charter schools can set much of their own doings the way that they see fit as they’re serving their student population. But they’re still at a disadvantage to the traditional public schools because they do receive less money than they do, and we just believe that every child should be treated equally when it comes to that kind of funding.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Let’s talk just a moment about curriculum. Where are those determinations and standards set? What conversations are North Carolina policy makers having about that curriculum? And what is your opinion there?
MIKE LONG: Well, public charter schools can set much of their own curriculum. And like the traditional public schools, they too have to administer a state test, which is the state EOG, end of grade tests, private schools can set their own curriculum and all Opportunity Scholarships schools must administer a nationally normed test and report those results to the students and parents. So there is a slight difference, but the same accountability applies.
The scholarship programs are administered by the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority. They were established back in 1965, and their secretariat is provided by the University of North Carolina, and private schools must provide to the authority the graduation rates of the student receiving scholarship grants in a manner consistent with nationally recognized standards.
So beyond testing, there’s a conversation to be had around educational attainment, because we believe that parents are the ultimate accountability, and that means looking at retention rates at schools of choice, graduation rates, parents satisfaction, college and career readiness. All of this goes back to curriculum. And it also goes back to achievement testing, done a little bit differently at different levels of education, but the same accountability occurs. And we believe the ultimate accountability for any child is the parents. And so that’s why the schools of choice offer all of these types of opportunities with great accountability on all fronts.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Well, we’re just about out of time for this week. Before we go, though, Mike Long, president of Parents for Educational Freedom, tell our listeners where they can go to learn more about these important education issues and all the good work that you all are doing over there.
MIKE LONG: Well, obviously, our website, Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, so it’s the letters of each word P E F N C.org, pefnc.org.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All right. Mike Long, thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.
MIKE LONG: Thanks for having me, Traci.
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