Brian Jodice, Executive Vice President for Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina (PEFNC), a statewide organization that seeks and supports greater educational opportunities for parents and students, discusses school choice opportunities in North Carolina.
Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. We are right in the middle of the back-to-school season for the traditional school calendar here in North Carolina, and more families than ever are taking advantage of the variety of educational options that exist in our state. The General Assembly continues to expand school choice opportunities, making North Carolina a national leader in the arena of school choice, and also empowering parents to determine the educational environment that best suits their children. Our guest today is Brian Jodice, Executive Vice President of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina (or PEFNC), which is a statewide organization that seeks and supports greater educational opportunities for parents and students, and we really look forward to talking with him about school choice options in North Carolina. Brian, welcome to Family Policy Matters. It’s great to have you back on the show.
BRIAN JODICE: John, it’s always great to be here.
JOHN RUSTIN: I know one of the big stories that we have seen recently in kind of considering the educational landscape here in North Carolina, is the declining number of students who are attending traditional public schools, and growing numbers who are attending other school choice options here in the state. Brian, why are we seeing this decline in traditional public school enrollment, and do you consider that to be a good thing, a bad thing, or perhaps kind of a mixed bag?
BRIAN JODICE: To be honest with you John I think it’s kind of a mixed bag. I look at it from a few different angles, and there’s a few questions we probably have to ask as to why these trends are happening. And at this point, we’re looking at two-three years in a row, so really not much of a trend, but probably just the way it is. I think the major thing is that families are just attuned to having choices. So, think about this: Most of us walk around with a smart phone, basically a mini-computer in our pocket every single day, and the average American has somewhere between 40 and 50 apps on their smartphone. We make choices every single day. We make hundreds of choices basically at that standpoint every day, at our fingertips, and I think families and this generation of families are just attuned to having more choices. And I think we’re starting to shift out of this mindset that says because I live in this zip code, because I’m at this address, I’m going to go to this school for elementary school, this school for middle school, and this school for high school. It’s just not that way anymore and families are just looking to navigate what educational options are out there for them. Now I also think that when you look at what’s happening in the traditional public schools, and you’re down almost 30,000 students in enrolment, and on the non-traditional methods, public charter, private, home schools, we’re up to almost 19,000 growth on that side of things. There must be a reason why. So, we can’t gloss over the fact that maybe it is an educational quality issue, maybe it is a safety issue. We want to hear from families and know why they’re making these choices. That’s what we try to do here when families come to us on a daily basis and say, “Hey, I need some help to know what else is out there.” We help them navigate through that. We just want families to be empowered. My wife and I sat down as a family and we made a parental school choice option, and that’s to enroll our daughter in a traditional public school where we live and we’ve loved every moment of that as she gets ready to enter the first grade. She’s getting ready to go to school here in just over a week or two, and we’re excited for that. So that was a parental school choice piece that we made. And we just want to empower families to make those kinds of choices and when they’re stuck in system that’s not working for them, to help them find what might be a better fit.
JOHN RUSTIN: I know that this year marks the fifth year for North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, so talk a little bit about the experience that you’ve had with that, and the families who are benefitting from it?
BRIAN JODICE: When you look at where we’ve come from it really is quite remarkable. This program was established in 2013. What’s really great too is—what Iike to talk about as well— this is one of three incredible programs helping families across our state. It’s a great pride point I think for the state of North Carolina. I love it! In that, we have three state-sponsored programs that help families, two of which, are designed to help families with students with special needs: Our Disabilities Grant, which was established in 2011; And then, our ESA program which was just established a year ago. But the Opportunity Scholarship, we’re looking at year number five—five years of this program. So here’s where we are right now. This coming school year, getting ready to start in the next few weeks, we’ll see about 10,700 students, somewhere in that neighborhood, enrolled in the private school of their parents’ choice with an Opportunity Scholarship. And we had almost 11,000 new families apply for spots this fall. So, incredible growth on that front. This program will continue to grow in the coming years. Our General Assembly, I think in a very wise move, forward- funded the program through the 2028-2029 school year, and so will continue to grow from there. We’ve seen incredible demand. What families have said again is that: We’re just looking for some other options. Of the 1.4 million students enrolled in traditional public schools every day, for many, many of those students, it’s a great option. But for some, families feel like they’re stuck or trapped in a system that doesn’t work for them. And quite frankly, they just don’t have the time to wait around for the system to improve. We ought to do everything we can to improve those traditional public schools. But what we can’t do is lose a generation of kids while that is happening. So, the Opportunity Scholarship Program helps empower some families, continues to grow strong, the program’s working well, and it’s accountable back to those families. That’s the beauty of it. If it didn’t work for them they can move elsewhere, but it’s growing well and we’re excited about that.
JOHN RUSTIN: And those Opportunity Scholarships are made available to lower-income families. Talk about the eligibility standards for those.
BRIAN JODICE: That really is the beauty of the whole thing. This is strictly designed to help the least of these, the folks that need it most. There’s always been school choice, right? Affluent families, families with a little bit more money in their bank account, have always been able to afford parental school choice. For that matter I count myself very fortunate, thank God almost every single day, because when we moved to North Carolina, when I was going into the fourth grade, my parents exercised some parental school choice and enrolled us in St. Mary’s elementary school, which is in Goldsboro. And that shaped my life, and is a big reason why I personally do the work I do today. Unfortunately, those options are not available for every single family. And so this program helps low-income families. There are income eligibility requirements based on the size of their household, and if they meet those eligibility requirements, they can apply for and then get accepted for this $4,200.00 scholarship. And by the way, that oftentimes doesn’t cover maybe half of what tuition is at a private school, so the families are stepping up, putting some skin in the game, the schools and local communities are doing the same, and now it’s getting ready to help tens of thousands of kids across our state, which I think is a great thing.
JOHN RUSTIN: Brian, earlier this summer, researchers from NC State University released the first-ever academic impact analysis evaluating the Opportunity Scholarship Program. What did they find in this study?
BRIAN JODICE: They found large positive impacts associated with students using the program. There is a bit of a caveat: It was a small pool that they were able to pull from, but what they did was a comparative study. So essentially they had Opportunity Scholarship students and the research team did, as close as they could, an apples to apples comparison. So they found students who met very similar socio-economic background/demographics in the traditional public schools, and they had those two sets of students take the same nationally known tests. And the results showed that, on that study, the Opportunity Scholarship students were outperforming their public school counterparts. I don’t believe this is the end-all, be-all, and there’s no need for any major parade in the street, but what I do think it shows is a qualitative study like this can be done, and if given the opportunity, families when they’re demanding these programs, are looking for a better educational outcome for their students. And this study showed that those students are starting to get that. So I think it’s a great first step. We applaud the team for making it happen, and we also support ongoing research evaluating academic outcomes, as well as more qualitative factors like parental satisfaction in these programs.
JOHN RUSTIN: Brian, one of the fastest growing aspects of school choice here in North Carolina is the number of students being homeschooled. How does homeschooling fit into the educational landscape, and what kinds of resources and policies does North Carolina have to support homeschool families?
BRIAN JODICE: John, it’s really pretty incredible if you look at the trajectory of homeschool here in our state. Over the last year, we’ve added nearly 8,000 new students into a homeschool. And so right now—and a lot of this based off of very sound estimates because it’s always hard to put an exact number on how many—but right now we estimate just over 135,000 students are being educated in homeschools in our state. That’s the most—If you look at the big three of non-traditional methods, between private school, public charter, and homeschool, homeschools have the most with 135,000. So I think it underlines the growing trend of parents’ desire to customize their children’s education. We’ve created a climate that does that for them, and as long as those homeschools meet some reporting requirements, then they’ve got the autonomy to do what they see best fit. And that’s about as local education control as you can find, a parent educating their child.
JOHN RUSTIN: Brian, I know that some people respond public charter schools and state-sponsored scholarship programs, and homeschooling options, and say that those types of programs really hurt traditional public schools by taking away students and related funding. How do you respond to those concerns?
BRIAN JODICE: You know what, John, I have to talk about this a lot, and oftentimes it’s posed that way. It’s unfortunate that we’re in an environment where it has to be, I feel like… opposition to these programs, to the parental school choice movement, it’s very much one or the other. If you’re not 100 percent for public schools, you’re not with us. That’s just crazy. I’m one of the largest advocates for parental school choice in our state, yet I still choose to enroll my daughter in the traditional public school because I believe in that system and I want that system to thrive. It should! It’s the vast majority of kids in our state. We should be able to have all of these options on the table. So, it seems a bit crazy to me that we have to be so divisive and it’s just one or the other. I think if we can put all these options on the table, that’s a good thing. What’s going on in public charter schools in our state is that they’re given the chance and the ability to be a little bit more flexible and have a little bit more freedom, but those are public schools, those are public school students. Those students and their families pay taxes, they ought to have the chance to educate a little bit of choice as to where they’re going to go to school, and elect a little bit of choice I mean to say. It’s tricky, and I always go back to this too: no one is forcing… no one is forced or told they must enroll in a public charter school, or a private school, or a homeschool. They’re making that choice, and that’s ultimately empowering a parent. Where many times, John, this is the first time they’ve ever had a seat at the educational table, they’re ever had someone hear their voice. So what we’re starting to see is that… Here’s the model that we think works at PEFNC: If you have a motivated and engaged teacher, a student who wants to learn—and all kids in their DNA are wired to want to learn—and you’ve got a parent with a seat at the table, I don’t care if that’s at a public school, private school, charter or at a homeschool, that equation can be the leading factor. I think we’re going to have better academic success for kids.
JOHN RUSTIN: Brian, I know PEFNC has really focused on telling the individual stories of families who have been impacted by North Carolina’s focus on empowering parents to make the best educational decisions for their own children. What has been one of your favorite stories from the families that you have interacted with that have benefited from Opportunity Scholarships, or other school choice programs?
BRIAN JODICE: There are so many, so many, and honestly I would ask if you’re so inclined to direct people to Parents for Educational Freedom, to our website, and then also to pefnc.org/video. So if they go there, we have a lot of those stories. Our YouTube channel has them as well. The pefnc.org/video keeps the most up to date. If they go there, they’ll see at the top of that page, the story about a mom out of Charlotte. Her name is Janet Nunn and her daughter, her name is Nariah, and she goes to Victory Christian School in Charlotte. We’ve been with Janet really since the beginning. She applied for a scholarship out the gate. We had the injunction and the court battle and the constitutional ruling, and Janet was there every step of the way. In that video, she shares her story. And we actually did [another] video with her back in 2015, and so we took the chance this summer to look back at that and she watches the video, she reacts, it’s very emotional. She has this daughter who was just far behind and was just struggling in the traditional public school that she was in and she just felt like she wasn’t getting a chance. She could barely read. She was behind grade level. She moved to this new school and this kid has just completely blossomed. When you get to hear and see these stories, I don’t see how you can be against these programs because if you are you’re essentially against the families who benefit from them.
JOHN RUSTIN: Brian, you all have again done such a great job, not only advocating for these opportunity scholarships and other educational programs in North Carolina, but also highlighting and helping to tell the stories, and enabling the families that benefit from these programs to tell their stories so that others can understand them better, learn form them and take advantage of them as well. So we’re grateful for that, and I do want to encourage our listeners to visit your website at pefnc.org
And with that, Brian Jodice, we’re out of time. But I do want to thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters, and for your incredibly important work protecting and expanding educational opportunities for parents and students in North Carolina.
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