North Carolina has seen numerous gains in regards to school choice over the past two years. Though we hear a lot about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on schools and school performance, enrollment in schools of choice across the state has skyrocketed.
Our friends at Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina have been working for nearly two decades to provide parents with choice in education. PEFNC President Mike Long joins host Traci DeVette Griggs on this week’s episode of Family Policy Matters to discuss North Carolina’s history as leaders in school choice, and what important changes and deadlines we have coming up.
Long shares that about 1.2 million K-12 children in North Carolina attend traditional public schools, but “that 1.2 million used to be 1.5 million just a couple years ago […] So this is a huge, huge rise in families choosing alternative schools and nontraditional schools for their children.”
Why this massive growth in school choice enrollment? “There are just so many wins when it comes to school choice,” says Long. “It levels the playing field for families that are seeking educational opportunity. It funds students not systems. It empowers parents who know what’s best for their children, not this bureaucracy in Raleigh. It also saves taxpayers money and it reduces overcrowded classrooms.”
Long goes on to share that North Carolina has been a national leader in school choice due to the numerous programs we have, including the Opportunity Scholarship Program, disabilities grants, and the Educational Savings Account. This year, the OSP funds have increased by $1,700 per student and the annual household income to qualify has increased by $12,000. “OSP applications for the next school year are opening on February 1st,” says Long, so those who are interested should apply now!
PEFNC has a team of parents—whose children are benefiting from the OSP—who will walk any parent through the whole application process. Visit PEFNC.org for more information.
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Mike Long expand on North Carolina’s history as a national school choice leader, and why choice in education benefits everyone.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. While we’ve heard a lot over the past two years about the impact of the pandemic on schools and school performance, there’s also been some good news when it comes to the role and choices of parents in the education arena.
Here to talk about that and to remind us of some upcoming deadlines is Mike Long, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.
Mike Long, welcome back to Family Policy Matters.
MIKE LONG: It’s always wonderful to be with you, Traci.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Well, Mike, start by giving us a lay of the land on school choice here in North Carolina.
MIKE LONG: It’s incredible. The education landscape in North Carolina right now: 69% of school-age children (K-12) are attending the traditional public schools—that’s about 1.2 million+. But here’s the interesting number: 31% of school-age children are now attending schools of choice. That 1.2 million used to be 1.5 million just a couple of years ago, attending traditional public schools; it was less than 20% attending schools of choice. So this is a huge, huge rise in families choosing alternative schools and nontraditional schools for their children, which is an amazing number for North Carolina. Just to give you a low down of it: homeschoolers, 179,000; magnet schools, 162,000; charter schools, 130,000; private schools, 107,000. Those are amazing numbers and speaks very strongly for school choice in North Carolina.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You know, Mike, I’m going to give you an opportunity to brag on yourself and your staff there, because I remember when you took over this position several years ago and North Carolina seemed to be kind of riding high, a lot of people thought we couldn’t go any higher, but you guys have continued to excel. Why is that?
MIKE LONG: Because school choice…there are just so many wins when it comes to school choice, Traci. First of all, it levels the playing field for families that are seeking educational opportunity; that’s a real plus. It funds students not systems; that’s huge. It empowers parents who know what’s best for their children, not this bureaucracy in Raleigh. It also saves the taxpayers money and it reduces overcrowded classrooms. You know, those are so many wins that politicians on both sides of the aisle see this as a real benefit for families and for North Carolina. When you allow school choice among so many people in the state, it also ensures economic equality for all. There are so many families that are stuck in their zip coded school that is failing their kids, and now with these scholarship opportunities that North Carolina offers, it gives them the economic opportunity to make decisions that are best for their children, as far as their education concerns. It frees them from these challenging communities that they might be in, and especially challenging public schools they might be in. So there’s so many wins to this; it’s one of the major reasons why it’s continuing to grow so rapidly and being supported by so many citizens here in North Carolina.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Governor Cooper has long been a vocal opponent to some aspects of school choice, but he recently surprised at least me by proclaiming School Choice Week in January. Were you surprised by that?
MIKE LONG: Well not surprised because our governor is a very good politician. He’s very astute on polls and numbers and what is very popular, and when you’ve got 65% of North Carolinians in support of school choice? I mean, that is something that the governor definitely sees and therefore makes some proclamations that might be supportive of school choice. I will say in that proclamation, it’s mainly highlighting charter schools, which is fantastic, but charter schools are public schools. So, when it comes to Opportunity Scholarship Programs and those kinds of things, he’s also made some incredible proclamations, and I’ll just simply quote him. When talking about the Opportunity Scholarship on the television show Education Matters a couple of years ago, he said, and I quote that “the Opportunity Scholarship Program is an expense we should stop.” He also said that he felt better—when dealing with the state’s budgets— he felt “better in eliminating the funding for opportunity scholarship programs.” And he said, “I do not like their vouchers.” Now, when he says “their,” he’s referring to the Republican-led legislature that have been the leaders in the forefront of the Opportunity Scholarships and school choice throughout the state of North Carolina.
So he may make one proclamation for school choice—primarily talking about charter public schools—but when it comes to the programs that have really grown this whole movement of school choice throughout North Carolina, he has made many proclamations against these programs and actually wanted to see them stop and still does. Those that against it, it’s a belief that one size fits all, and that is namely the public schools. So all taxpayer dollars should go only to the public schools when it comes to education. Well, one size does not fit all when it comes to a child’s education and nobody knows that better than their parents. And so what we’re trying to do here at Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina is we’re trying to empower parents to make those choices and have the ability, the economic ability to make those choices so that their kids can be in a school where they thrive and can have greater success than perhaps one where they’re stuck because they’re assigned primarily because of their zip code and they simply feel trapped.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: But you’re not opposed to public schools?
MIKE LONG: Absolutely not. We’re for public schools. The vast majority of parents still attend public schools, but what we want to see is we want to see them get better. This is why I think those that are against school choice, I think it would do them better—like the teacher’s unions, the NCAE, and all that are so vehemently opposed to these scholarship programs—I would suggest that they begin to ask the question, “Why?” “Why are so many parents choosing alternative educational resources in order for their children to be educating according to their needs?” Because when they learn why they’re leaving the public schools, it’ll help identify what those problems are, and then we would hope that they can improve in those areas so that does not happen at such a rapid pace. So yes, we are all for the public schools, but we’re also for the charter schools, magnet schools, the virtual schools, the private schools, the home schools, all types of schools that meet the needs of children.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: North Carolina has long been a national leader in school choice. Is that still the case? Are we still kind of leading the nation?
MIKE LONG: Very much so. We have so many programs here, particularly the Opportunity Scholarship Program. And then also we have the disability grants that are for children with learning disabilities and other disabilities to get them in a school that best fits those needs. And also the Education Savings Account, which helps fund what further needs they have. So North Carolina leads with all three, and many other states look to North Carolina as the model for school choice for their state as well. So we’re very pleased to be a leader in this throughout the country.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Speaking of those scholarship programs, there’s been an expansion of North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, correct?
MIKE LONG: Right. In the state budget that we finally got passed this year and signed by the governor…the scholarship amounts in the past have always been around $4,200. Now that’s a direct scholarship to a parent that qualifies to pay the tuition of a private school that would meet their children’s needs. In the current new state budget that was just passed, that’s now increased to $5,900. So that is going to help a lot of the OSP families out there be able to get into the school that might have higher tuition and help meet those needs there. Also for families to qualify, it was that an income for a family of four was $73,000 a year that could qualify; that’s now been increased to $85,000 a year.
So it’s working exceptionally well, and I just want to remind our listeners that these dollars do not take away anything from public school dollars. These are entirely separate programs from that, and if anything, it saves the taxpayer dollars because $5,900 is a lot less to educate a child than approximately $9,900—give or take a little bit when you bring in federal funds—to educate a child in the public school. So these programs are actually saving taxpayer dollars and reducing overcrowded classrooms at the same time. And so that’s why it’s, again, such a great win. The legislature understands this, the leadership there understands it, but the biggest plus in this is the way it empowers parents to make those educational decisions rather than the bureaucrats in Raleigh.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So if parents are hearing this and they’re like, “Ooh, I’d like to get in on that scholarship thing.” How do they do that? And we have some deadlines coming up, right?
MIKE LONG: Sure. One of the best places they can go to is part of our organization; it’s called SchoolChoiceNorthCarolina.com. That will give you all the deadline information. But the easier approach could be just our website, which is PEFNC.org. That’s Parents for Educational Freedom North Carolina, and all of the deadlines are there as well. I will say OSP applications for the next school year are opening on February 1st, and the priority application window is the month of February. So we always recommend applying early. We have a team of parent liaison mamas whose children are also benefiting from Opportunity Scholarships that will walk through anyone who goes to our website at pefnc.org. Just send in your information, and we have a team of people that will contact you, walk you through the process, get you applied with the state, get you funded by the state, and then we’ll even take it one step further and help you find the school that best meets the needs of your child.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: We talked a little bit about North Carolina being a leader in this area. What is it about our state? What has happened in our history? Is there something unique about the people of North Carolina that make this so important to us here?
MIKE LONG: It has been a long process. Our organization was put together 17 years ago. When you have a system in place that’s a hundred plus years old—and that is the current education system—that runs the public schools, it is very, very hard to make changes and reforms to something that’s been around that long. So it’s just been a process. As the state of North Carolina has implemented these programs on a small basis, and then seen the overwhelming reaction of parents for it, it’s just been a no brainer to continue to expand it and expand it. Then finally, I’ll say we now have a situation where millennial parents—those that have been with the smartphone and all the apps—and we have a whole generation of parents now having kids that are reaching school age that have been inundated with choice through technology, through cell phones, smartphones, those kinds of things. And so to say to them, those parents, that “Your child is only going to go to the school that’s in your zip code, whether you like it or not,” just is not settling well with the parents of today. And that’s why this river is flowing more rapidly. Those parents are going to demand choice and they actually are demanding choice. So the wisdom of our legislative leadership, they’re hearing these parents and they’re listening to these parents and they’re responding to them. That kind of freedom, that kind of ability to give your child the kind of education they deserve, is hard to fight. It’s hard to beat, and so the tide keeps rolling along.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All right. Thank you so much for joining us, Mike Long, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. Thanks for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.
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