Over the past year, we have talked a lot about the status of education in North Carolina, and many have debated how to best continue the critical education of our children in a safe manner. Many public charter and private schools in our state have offered some manner of in-person education for a while now, while a bill introduced in the North Carolina General Assembly earlier this year would have required every public school district to offer some form of in-person education for those who wanted it. This bill was vetoed by Governor Roy Cooper last week, and a veto override vote by the state Senate was unsuccessful.
As we look to the future, wondering how the COVD-19 pandemic has changed education in our state, NC Family invited Dr. Terry Stoops to speak on this subject. Dr. Stoops is Director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation, and he joins host Traci DeVette Griggs on this week’s Family Policy Matters radio show and podcast.
“Currently we have around nine school districts in North Carolina that have no in-person instruction,” says Stoops, “where the children only receive their education through online or remote learning environments.”
While traditional public school enrollment has been declining in North Carolina for a few years now, Stoops argues that the pandemic has led to a surge in the number of students enrolling in public charter, private, and especially homeschools across the state. This is because many parents who never considered schools of choice—perhaps because they lived in an area with great district public schools—are finding themselves needing new educational options for their children as virtual learning has dragged on.
“What I think will be the game-changer for school choice in North Carolina,” continues Stoops, “is that those parents were seeking out private schools that had that in-person instruction on day one; they were seeking out charter schools that provided in-person instruction; or they were deciding to go to a homeschool.”
“We’re going to be very soon approaching the situation where one in four children in North Carolina will be in a school of choice, and that will put North Carolina in the top tier of school choice states.”
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Dr. Terry Stoops look forward to the future of North Carolina’s education landscape.
TRACI GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Education is front and center in the minds of both lawmakers and parents across North Carolina. Governor Cooper, lawmakers, and teachers—like many across the nation—continue to debate both the when and how of returning students to schools after nearly a year of remote and virtual learning. At the same time, the state School Board has come under recent criticism for its changes to the state history curriculum.
To talk about all of this, we have invited Dr. Terry Stoops, Director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation here in North Carolina. He is co-founder of Carolina Charter Academy in Angier, North Carolina, and was recently appointed by Lt. Governor Mark Robinson to serve on the North Carolina Charter School Advisory Board.
Dr. Terry Stoops, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
TERRY STOOPS: Thank you for having me.
TRACI GRIGGS: Let’s start with the topic that is most on the forefront of people’s minds: students returning to school. First, what is the status of in-person learning here in North Carolina?
TERRY STOOPS: Yeah, that really depends on where you go to school. If your child goes to a private school, most likely they have been enjoying in-person instruction for some time now. Private schools for the most part have been in-person since late last year, or even at the beginning of the school year last year. Of course, if you’re a homeschool child, you’ve been in-person as well. And many of our public charter schools have opted for in-person instruction. Really it depends on school districts, and they have been the most resistant to in-person instruction. You have some school districts that decided very early on (Durham County schools comes to mind) that they would stay in a virtual educational environment for the remainder of the school year. They’ve since changed their mind on that. But currently we have around nine school districts in North Carolina that have no in-person instruction, where the children only receive their education through online or remote learning environments. That may change soon with the introduction of a bill by the General Assembly to get those school districts and others to provide the in-person learning option. But for the most part, the remainder of the districts in North Carolina are providing some sort of in-person instruction. Some school districts are providing some in-person instruction every day; some are providing every other week or in staggered schedules. It’s really hard to characterize the type of in-person instruction that’s being provided in many of our school districts, but we know that very few at this point are completely in a remote learning environment, and that may change very soon.
TRACI GRIGGS: Why do you think the local school districts have been the most resistant, as you said?
TERRY STOOPS: Well, Governor Cooper provided them the opportunity to open at their discretion. But there’s been so much pressure on school districts, especially by teacher organizations (North Carolina Association of Educators comes to mind) that have been resistant to going back to in-person instruction for fear of transmission of COVID-19. What we know about COVID is that there is very little possibility of transmission in schools as long as certain requirements are met; social distancing, masks, and other measures make it a very safe environment. In fact, both the Biden Administration and the Trump Administration agreed that in-person instruction was not only possible, but desirable, and was not a threat to the health of teachers and staff. And yet you have groups that represent teachers and staff pushing back on school boards and encouraging them to resist the parental demand for in-person instruction. Some have unfortunately folded to those demands. Others have listened to the desire of parents and given some opportunity for in-person instruction.
TRACI GRIGGS: You mentioned action by the North Carolina legislature on this front. The legislature just passed Senate Bill 37–In-Person Learning Choice for Families, requiring North Carolina public schools to offer in-person learning for those who want it. As of today—of course we know things are changing daily, this is February 24th—what is the status of that bill?
TERRY STOOPS: It sits on the Governor’s desk and he must take some action by February 27th. Right now, we are not sure what action that’s going to be. He can veto it, or it could become law without his signature. If he does veto it, it will go back to the General Assembly where most likely it will be overridden. There was some Democratic support for the bill. There were three Democrats in the Senate and eight in the House that voted for the In-Person Learning Choice for Families bill, and it would most likely be overridden if it went back to the General Assembly. This bill is a step in the right direction; I know that there are some individuals that hoped that it would be more aggressive. This still gives school boards some latitude in how they go back to in-person instruction. Again, we’re only talking about a handful of districts, but it allows them to go to either a plan A, which is five days of in-person instruction with minimal social distancing, or a plan B, which could be some hybrid plan where students are in different types of schedules, where social distancing is observed. Of course in all of these scenarios, masks would still be required. So, the Governor has some choices to make here. And I think he also recognizes that families have a strong desire to resume instruction in an in-person education environment.
TRACI GRIGGS: Well, let’s switch gears a little bit because there was a controversy recently that we all heard about where the State Board of Education here in North Carolina was discussing some changes to North Carolina’s history curriculum. We saw that North Carolina’s new Lt. Governor, who is also a member of the State Board of Education, was pitted against the majority of the State Board members. What was that all about?
TERRY STOOPS: North Carolina revises its academic standards periodically, and in 2019 the state social studies standards were up for review and revision. Many may not remember in 2010, there was a battle over the social study standards even then, when the state decided—and I’m not quite sure why— they decided that they would focus on U.S. history after 1877, after Reconstruction, and basically give very little attention to the history that occurred before then. Fast-forward to 2019, we have a different type of controversy with a majority of the State Board of Education appointed by Governor Cooper, trying to revise the social studies standards to make them more “woke,” to make them more attentive to left-wing ideology. This really was problematic, and of course the Lt. Governor found it problematic as well.
Now there was no question that our history should deal with difficult subjects, should deal with the difficult history that students need to know. But there was no balance in these standards, no talking about the great things that America has done, the opportunities that it provides, the genius of our Constitution. So the Lt. Governor, along with other members of the State Board that were appointed by Governor McCrory, fought back and pushed back along with the newly elected (at that point) Superintendent of Public Instruction, Catherine Truitt, to try to get more balanced. Well in the end, unfortunately, we didn’t get the balance that we really needed in North Carolina social studies standards. It’s still very tilted toward a very negative view of our history. And really, you know, you think about what social studies standards are and why they’re important. They’re important because they provide the foundation by which our citizens become adults and become active in civil life. During the founding era, the reason why the Founders were so passionate about the need for public education was because they wanted an educated electorate. They wanted people to go to the polls with not only an understanding of the issues, but an understanding of the candidates and an understanding about where their vote fits in to the vision of the nation, to the rule of law, to the Constitution—both a national Constitution, state Constitution, and their local government.
So that’s why this is so important, and that’s why there was so much passion about social studies standards. It was because of the importance that social studies plays in ensuring that we have an educated electorate. What I fear is that the standards that were ultimately approved by the State Board of Education don’t give our children the type of information they need to be successful as a citizen and participate fully in civic life. The next frontier here is hoping that school boards—and I’ll be working, and many other organizations will be working—to ensure that school boards know about the flexibility that they possess to providing curriculum that would be an improvement over the state standards approved recently.
TRACI GRIGGS: These two issues, these main two issues that we’ve talked about in this radio show, have exacerbated I think some frustration with parents regarding public education. Talk about the trajectory of student enrollment in public, private, and homeschooling, and the decline in public school enrollment that we’ve seen during the pandemic.
TERRY STOOPS: Well, absolutely. There’s been a decline in public school enrollment for a few years now. It’s small—it’s in the 10,000 kids a year—but we’re seeing a surge in the number of students enrolling in public charter, private, and especially homeschools. Currently around 21 percent of North Carolina students attend a private, home, or a public charter school. That number is most likely going to increase when we get our final enrollment numbers here this summer, when we know that there’s been a strong demand for homeschooling, for private schooling, and our charter schools have increased probably by around 9,000 students. That continues to eat into the market share for our school district enrollment, which of course remains a strong majority of the numbers in North Carolina and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. But that market share continues to erode as more parents find that the education that they’re receiving in their district is unsatisfactory for any number of reasons.
The real change with COVID, the real turning point is that parents that never thought that they would seek out school choices—because they bought a house in a leafy suburb, their child went to a really great district school, they made sure of that by buying that house in just the right area and making sure that their child was assigned to that great school—those parents never thought that they would ever have to think about school choice, and then COVID hit. And then all of a sudden, their child was being told that they had to stay home for an indefinite amount of time. Parents were scrambling to find arrangements for those children, especially those working parents that didn’t necessarily have the luxury of staying home with their children. So those parents who never thought about school choice were suddenly thrust into the need for finding different educational options for their children. So what I think will be the game-changer for school choice in North Carolina is that those parents were seeking out private schools that had that in-person instruction on day one; they were seeking out charter schools that provided in-person instruction; or they were deciding to go to a homeschool. So, we’re going to see I believe a real push, a real significant increase in the percentage of students that are in these educational alternatives. And we’re going to be very soon here, or approaching the situation where one in four children in North Carolina will be in a school of choice, and that will put North Carolina in the top tier of school choice states.
TRACI GRIGGS: Dr. Stoops, tell us where our listeners can go to follow your work at the John Locke Foundation.
TERRY STOOPS: If you go to johnlocke.org or carolinajournal.com, there you can find links. So, if you look for articles by me or by Bob Luebke or Robert Luebke, there you can find our ongoing work on school choice, teacher pay, and every other important issue that’s going on in education. If you want to give me a call here at the John Locke Foundation, (919) 828-3876. I look forward to chatting with everyone. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
TRACI GRIGGS: Dr. Terry Stoops, Director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation, thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters.
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