Mike Long, President of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, shares why 20% of North Carolina families are exploring non-traditional schooling options, and how the Millennial parent mindset of having options continues to influence this school choice trend.
TRACI GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. We’ve spent the last few weeks taking a closer look at just a few of the many options that North Carolina families have for educating their children. Well, this week we’re going to look at the state level environment that allows for these kinds of options to exist here. The North Carolina General Assembly has made educational freedom a top priority over the last several years, and greatly expanded both the policy and monetary support for parents who want more educational choices. Mike Long is a North Carolina native with a long history in education, who now serves as President of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. It’s the preeminent school choice advocacy organization here in North Carolina. Mike Long, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
MIKE LONG: Thank you Traci, always good to talk to you.
TRACI GRIGGS: It’s great to have you back. You are now in a new role for Parents for Educational Freedom. So start off by giving us some information about that organization and what role it plays in the school choice arena.
MIKE LONG: Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina is a nonprofit organization that advocates for quality education options through parental school choice. So our mission is to engage at the grassroots level, educate North Carolinians about the options in our state, and then empower families to have a voice in their children’s education. So we’re North Carolina’s source for parental school choice, and we believe in allowing parents to send their children to the school of their choice, either traditional or nontraditional schools. We recognize that education is not a one-size-fits-all, and that children have unique needs. So, families should have the freedom to choose the best education to meet those needs regardless of their race, their zip code, or their income.
TRACI GRIGGS: Well, we do know that educational choice has been exploding in North Carolina. What do the numbers tell us about parents’ desire for school choice here?
MIKE LONG: Yeah, the percentage of North Carolinians, it’s about 1.8 million K-12 students that attend traditional public schools. That has dropped 79.9 percent this year. That means 20 percent of North Carolina families are exploring the choice options. They’re doing it either through public charter schools—that’s about 100,000 plus students in North Carolina. They’re doing it through private schools—another 100,000 plus students. And also homeschools—about 150,000 plus students. So over 350,000 students in our state are in schools that their parents choose regardless of their zip code. That’s 20 percent, and to me that is very, very significant.
TRACI GRIGGS: Well, that is significant. So how has this happened? How has North Carolina become so choice-friendly when it comes to education?
MIKE LONG: Well, as the new president, I did a little research and looked at some history myself. Going back to 2011, I simply have concluded that there’s no other state in the country that has more choice-friendly options and programs than here in North Carolina. It started back in 2011 when the state eliminated the cap on charter schools, and established North Carolina’s first private school choice program through a learning disability scholarship. All of that happened in 2011, and then in 2013 the Opportunity Scholarship Program was established. That’s designed to help low-income and working-class families have equal access to private schools of their choice that they feel can best meet the needs of their children. In 2018, North Carolina adopted the Education Savings Account for special needs students here in North Carolina. So we have three basic major scholarship opportunities—unlike any other state in the country—and I believe that’s how the state has become so choice-friendly. And I have other ideas and reasons behind why so many families are choosing school choice over the zip-coded school they’re required to go to, if you want to talk about that.
TRACI GRIGGS: Yeah, please.
MIKE LONG: Well, I’ll tell you, I’m a former Christian Head of School in Charlotte and of one in Atlanta. I’ll tell you, going back 35 years, when I first started teaching in the public schools, I remember parents back then would come saying, “Hey, we’re here in the community and we’re looking forward to being a part of our community school.” That mentality has changed dramatically with the millennial parent today. It’s no longer, “Hey, we’re here in the community, ready to be a part of the community school.” It’s, “Hey, we would like to come to your school and would like to know what your school can personally do for our child. Can your school best meet the needs of our child?” When I would explain what our school would do, if that parent felt that it did meet their child’s needs, then they wanted to be a part of that school as their community school. So it’s all about what’s the best fit for my child. And so when you talk about the millennial mindset of the parent today it’s, “You mean just because I live in this zip code, the government is going to require me to go to that school?” That’s just not going to fly well, and that’s why it’s 20 percent, and growing and growing and growing. Parents today want school choice.
TRACI GRIGGS: That’s interesting. So what you’re saying is that there’s this dramatic shift in culture and in thought, and in your opinion is this going to be stopped? Is this a fad?
MIKE LONG: Not at all. When you reach a 20 percent milestone of parents in North Carolina exercising school choice, that’s not a fad; that is significant. And what I want people to understand is Parents for Educational Freedom is not at all opposed or against the public schools. We want parents to be able to choose what school best fits the needs of their child. If that is their community public school that they’re zip-coded to attend, fantastic. We want to see that school improve. If that is a charter school, if it’s a private school, if it’s homeschool, we believe parents should be able to decide what school best fits the needs of their child. Not an archaic governmental system that says one size fits all, and just because you live in this zip code, you must go to that school, regardless.
TRACI GRIGGS: Well, a long list of educational choice-friendly policies, but what about some weak points regarding policy in our state?
MIKE LONG: Well, some say that because of school choice, you’re taking away funding from the public schools. First of all, that’s not the case at all in the state of North Carolina. These are separately funded programs to allow parents the opportunity to exercise school choice, so they’re not taking any funding away from the public schools. The other thing that is amazing to me as a former private Head of School was the number of public school teachers that would come to me seeking employment in our school. Well, on average public school teachers today are making $53,000 a year. And yet I would have teacher after teacher from the public school system wanting to come to our private school at an average of $32,000 a year. So see, there are so many other reasons than just teacher pay as to why so many teachers are leaving the public school system for private school options. And then at the same time, most of the private schools and charter schools operate on far less capital than the public schools. I’m all for great pay for teachers. I’m all for the fact that these public school teachers have been able to get a pay raise in North Carolina for the last five years. But it’s not just about teacher pay as to why so many parents are leaving the public school system and choosing these other school opportunities, and other teachers are leaving as well. There are so many other factors involved. You can talk about safety issues, you can talk about bureaucratic issues, you can talk about all of these other issues. But what I’m saying is, it is the millennial parent and their mentality of choice today that is really elevating the exodus from the public school system to these other opportunities and schools.
TRACI GRIGGS: Mike, specifically we hear that school choice is causing a kind of re-segregation in a lot of communities, or at least several communities. Is that true? And if it is, are there ways that we can address it so that this does not become a bigger problem?
MIKE LONG: Well, remember in the Old South—in the segregation and Jim Crow’s South—segregation was forced. These choices are not forced. These are decisions that parents are making in the best interest of their child. We work with over 10,000 Opportunity Scholarship parents that simply want another opportunity school choice for their child rather than the zip-coded public school that they’re supposed to attend. I have yet to have one African American, Latino, White, across the board that has said the reason they want to leave a school is over a racial reason. Not one. No, it is about what is the best educational interest for their child. But what I’ll tell you is, when you have those who do, let’s say, have the opportunity to choose because they have the economic means of choosing the school that they want to go to, and they leave a particular area to attend that school, they’re exercising school choice. What about those who cannot? So, when you just allow a certain segment that has the money to exercise school choice to leave, then it’s inevitably segregating on its own. And if you want to desegregate a particular area, you have a smaller pool to choose from. School choice will actually make that better because if parents do not have to leave the community because they can choose which school they want to attend in that community, they stay. If they stay, businesses stay. If businesses stay, economic development grows. It’s a win-win across the board for the community.
TRACI GRIGGS: All right, well let’s talk big picture funding. So we know the Legislature and the Governor have spent much of this year at odds over how and where to focus education money. Break that down for us. Where do North Carolina’s education dollars go?
MIKE LONG: Traditional public school spending is $10 billion for the year 2018-19. Public charter state spending is $675 million. The Opportunity Scholarship, the Disability Grant, the Education Savings Account is approximately $60 million. So since 2013, Opportunity Scholarships have provided, as I said, up to $4,200 per student towards private school education for some of the neediest students in the state of North Carolina. These are medium household income families enrolled in the program; they generally make around $31,000 a year. So these are not rich families, and an Opportunity Scholarship is often their best hope to give their children the right fit for education. Also they reduce class size. That’s another thing that so many on the public school front argue that we need smaller classes. Opportunity Scholarships give that. So obviously we’re a little bit concerned on the Opportunity Scholarship side when the Governor comes out and publicly says that he believes that the Opportunity Scholarship Program is an expense that needs to stop. First of all, our children are not an expense; our children are an investment. And this is an investment that saves the state money, lowers classroom size in the public school system, and provides parents the opportunity to choose what best fits the needs of their child.
TRACI GRIGGS: Now we’re just about out of time for this week, but before we go, where can our listeners go to learn more about their educational options here in North Carolina?
MIKE LONG: Well, we make it very easy. Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, that is pefnc.org. We have everything there at your fingertips, from helping you find a school that can best meet the needs of your child, to seeing if you qualify for Opportunity Scholarship. We have parent liaison teams all over the state of mostly moms who have benefited from these scholarships that walk parents through the application process. They can help you get that scholarship and then help you find the school that would best meet the needs of your child.
TRACI GRIGGS: Mike Long, we appreciate your work to foster opportunities in North Carolina for every student to learn in the best, most appropriate environment for them. And thank you for joining us on Family Policy Matters.
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