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NC’s Opportunity Scholarship Gives Parents Educational Options (With Mike Long)

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North Carolina is one of the leading states in the nation in the area of school choice. In addition to the wide variety of educational options available to K-12 students across the state, the North Carolina General Assembly has taken its commitment a step further by expanding the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which helps enable parents to send their child to the school that best fits their needs regardless of financial barriers.

This week on Family Policy Matters, host Traci DeVette Griggs welcomes back Mike Long, President of Parents for Educational Freedom North Carolina, to discuss North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship and the impact that it has.

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Transcript: NC’s Opportunity Scholarship Gives Parents Educational Options (With Mike Long)

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. School choice is booming in North Carolina. Last session, the General Assembly expanded the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program to make every North Carolina student eligible for the program. This year, the number of applicants for the scholarships jumped by over 500% over last year. Well, today we’re joined by Mike Long, President of Parents for Educational Freedom, the preeminent school choice organization here in North Carolina, to discuss how this program is already helping North Carolina students and how lawmakers are expecting to respond to the overwhelming demand. Mike Long, welcome back to Family Policy Matters.

MIKE LONG: Thank you, Traci. It’s always good to be with you.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All right. So for somebody who may have missed it, tell us what is the Opportunity Scholarship Program.

MIKE LONG:The Opportunity Scholarship Program is a state-funded program that provides K-12 private school scholarships to students all over North Carolina. The program currently is serving about 32,000+ students in our state just this year alone. And now with the expansion that’s taking place, there’s been over 72,000 new applicants already in line for the scholarships for this fall. So the scholarship began serving students back in 2014, and has just grown and grown to an overwhelming amount of demand for this kind of school choice opportunity.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So explain why this is important to people. What is the incentive for them to be a part of this program?

MIKE LONG: A lot of families feel like if they’re in a particular school that is not working for them because that school was assigned to them based on the zip code that they live in, many of them are stuck there because they cannot economically afford to attend a school, whether it be private or otherwise that can best meet the needs of their children. And so, the Opportunity Scholarship gives them the economic freedom to choose a school that meets the educational needs best for their children. And so that’s why it is so popular. We believe that parents know what’s best for their child as far as their education is concerned. And so they should have the freedom to decide what school best meets those needs. And the dollars should not stand in the way. So that’s why we believe that the education dollars of the state should follow the child and not the system.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Right. So it seems pretty radical, the changes that the General Assembly made this past year. Tell us what happened there.

MIKE LONG: When the program was initiated, it was mostly for low-income families who are economically stuck in a school that’s not meeting the needs of their children. It became so popular that it grew and grew and grew each year. But it was still primarily for lower-income families that could not afford, say, a private school that they feel would best meet the needs of their child this year. And the expansion that the legislature passed now made it universal in such that it does not matter what your income is, any family can apply for it. Now they did it in tiers so that certain families get scholarships more so than others depending on their financial need. But right now, any family in the state of North Carolina, regardless of their finances, their zip code, can apply for the scholarship through the state agency that administers it.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So what does this say philosophically about how this General Assembly views public education? Are we moving toward kind of a voucher system where the money follows everybody?

MIKE LONG: We’ve been operating under a system that is archaic. The public education system dates back over 120 years. Many changes have taken place in our culture, our society over those years, technologically and otherwise. But there’s also many needs that families have as far as the education of their children. It’s not a one-size-fits-all anymore. Plus, you’ve got the millennial parent now who has children that have reached the K-12 years, let’s say, and they’re kind of used to these devices that have things on them called apps, and apps are nothing more than choices, and so they’re so adept and making choices in their everyday life. Many parents are, like, appalled to think that the government – on one of the most important things for their children, their education – is going to decide for them what school they should attend based on their zip code, you know, and where they’re located. And so parents love and need and should have the freedom to decide what school works best for them. So, all the legislature has done, they simply reformed the system, meaning those tax dollars for education are now following the child more and more rather than the system more and more. And that’s really the fundamental difference here.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: And do you expect them to move more in that direction?

MIKE LONG: Absolutely. When you think about the fact that just this year alone, when they made the scholarship available to any family, regardless of their income, or their zip code, over 72,000 families applied for this? Well, that’s just unprecedented. That’s an incredible demand. And the legislature’s got to rethink their funding of this because they’ve got to be able to meet the demand. All of these families are taxpayers. All of these families contribute to the tax payroll for education. And so all we’re saying is those dollars for education need to follow that family, that child, and again, not the system. That’s the real difference here. And I believe that’s why it’s become so incredibly popular. You look at poll after poll 68% to 70% of North Carolinians support school choice in our state. So this is not a real bad thing, let’s say towards the public school system, we want them to improve too. All families are saying is, “we just want the choice. One size doesn’t fit all. Our child has certain needs, and certain schools can better meet those needs than others.” That’s all this is.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Do you think that this demand, this 72,000 people that applied, does it give the general assembly the ammunition that they need to move in a direction of having that funding follow more students?

MIKE LONG: Well, I can answer that this way, that those families that have benefited from the Opportunity Scholarship, we always informed them that the scholarship dollars that they received do not grow on trees in Raleigh. And there are people that are for them, and there are people that are against them. And we simply inform them about who is for it and who is against it. And what I’ve learned is when it comes to a parent, it doesn’t make any difference if that individual that’s against the scholarship is Republican, Democrat, white, black, male, female; if you’re not supporting my child’s scholarship, I’m not supporting you. That’s just how valuable this is in freeing families from an education system that entraps many of them from being successful. All they want is the freedom to choose the school that best meets the needs of their children. Nothing more, nothing less. This is all about the child and the child’s education, and what school can best meet the needs of that child’s education. It’s not about politics when it comes to families. But unfortunately, politics does play a role because we are talking about tax dollars.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Is there measurable data to show that families that are able to choose their schools are having more success or are seeing better outcomes?

MIKE LONG: You know, the parents are the best judge of that. Why would you pick a school that’s failing to put your child in there? You know what the school does, you know how the school performs. Every school has to test; every school has certain obligations that they’re met, that they must meet state obligations, and otherwise, whether they’re private or public, but we think that the best determiner of success are parents who watch and see what their child is doing and how they’re performing. We work with thousands of parents across the state. When we talk about that scholarship, particularly those mamas, you should see the tears that roll down their eyes. This scholarship has liberated my family, they say. It has made all the difference in the world for my child, who is now succeeding educationally. So, you want to know data? Just go talk to the parents. 32,000, and now 72,000 more wanting the scholarship – I think they know better about how successful it is than anybody else.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Who’s benefiting the most from this program currently, you mentioned the low income, who are you seeing that really is seeing these remarkable benefits that you just mentioned?

MIKE LONG: The General Assembly felt that to start the program that it was best to try to provide the financial need for lower-income families, many of which are stuck in neighborhoods at an assigned school that’s failing them. And so that’s why, in the expansion, the General Assembly put this in four different tiers of award for the scholarship. Tier one are for families that have the highest financial need. That’s like a family of four that’s making about $57,000 a year. They’re eligible for a $7,400 scholarship. Tier two families. That’s a family of four that’s making an average of about $115,000 a year. They’re eligible for a $6,700 scholarship. So tier one and tier two families were eligible for the program before its expansion, and now tier three and four are added to that. Those are families that are making 116,000 to 250,000. That’s a tier three family that would receive a scholarship of about $4,500. And then tier four families have no income limit at all. And they could receive a $3,300 scholarship. So the general assembly is still earmarking this towards families with the most financial need. So far, funding is available for all the 32,000 that want to renew and also the tier one families now in the expansion. They’re going to be addressing tier three and tier four families in the upcoming short session to determine whether or not additional funding could be provided for those families.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So what do you say to critics, then, who say this is going to ruin local public schools, it’s not fair to the students who are left out of the scholarship program.

MIKE LONG: Well, it’s not putting a dent at all in any public school funding. This is all on top of that, in addition to. If anything, it is less expensive to educate the child. When you talk about a $7,400 scholarship to go to a private school that meets the needs of that child as opposed to nearly $12,000 in the public schools per child to educate them. It’s actually saving the state money. When a lot of the complaints of the public school system are overcrowded classrooms. This is reducing the size of those classrooms without reducing the funding. Funding goes up every year for public schools in North Carolina. So it’s actually decreasing the class sizes there. So I just want to challenge our critics to this: go talk to the families who have these scholarships and ask them why they left the public school. I think once we start addressing those questions, and then we can improve public schools so that families don’t even want to leave them. But there is a reason why so many families are leaving the public schools, there are several reasons why they are. So let’s find out what those reasons are, address the questions of why and improve public schools as well. That’s why we think school choice improves all schools, public, private, virtual, charter, even homeschoolers. All of them improve because parents choose what’s best for their children. That only improves all education across the board.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Mike, do you want to wade into the question of why people are leaving public schools?

MIKE LONG: Many public schools are failing. They’re just simply failing to educate children, in the typical reading, writing, arithmetic, as we say. They’re just not functioning properly. There are issues of safety and concern. There’s issues of indoctrination rather than education. There are all kinds of issues why these families are leaving. I remember when I came on board here at Parents for Educational Freedom. Just five and a half years ago, there were 1.5 million students in our public school system. Today, there’s 1.3 million 200,000 students, just in my tenure here alone, in five years, have left the public school system for alternative means of education. Why? Why are they leaving, it’s not about money. It’s about all these other factors and reasons why they’re leaving, that the system fails to address. All they say is throw more money at it, and things will improve. And this is done year after year after year. And the real questions of why these families are leaving are not being addressed. And that’s why you see a greater influx of exit. So until those questions are addressed, public schools are going to continue to decline. We want them to improve. So let’s address those questions and help them improve so that families don’t want to leave them.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Well, we’re about out of time, Mike, before we go, where can our listeners go to learn more about North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program and all the other great work that you guys are doing over there at Parents for Educational Freedom?

MIKE LONG: That’s it right there., of course that stands for Parents for Educational Freedom North Carolina. Everything that you need from A to Z for school choice and opportunity scholarships specifically can be found on our website. We are happy to help you, please call us anytime. We will offer assistance in the application process to anyone who needs it. And we will also work to help you as parents find the school that best meets the needs of your children in your area.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All right, Mike Long, President of Parents for Educational Freedom. Thanks so much for your good work and for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.

MIKE LONG: Thank you, Traci.

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