We are just over a week away from Election Day, and thousands of voters across our state and nation have already cast their ballots for what is likely to be the most important election of our lifetimes. One of hot-button issues in North Carolina especially is school choice. We are one of the top states for school choice in the nation, making this issue a critical topic of discussion in several races, in particular the race for governor.
Mike Long is president for Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina (PEFNC), which is the preeminent school choice advocacy organization in our state. He joins Traci DeVette Griggs on this week’s episode of the Family Policy Matters radio show and podcast to discuss just how much is at stake for school choice in this critical election.
Long reminds all of us that being for school choice does not mean being against teachers or against traditional public schools. “We are for public schools,” he says. “We want public schools to be better. We just do not think that systems need to be prioritized here. We think that parents and families need to have the priority for them to make the choice of what’s best for them. If it’s the public school, great. If it’s the public charter school, great. If it’s a private school, great. If it’s a homeschool, great. If it’s virtual learning, great. We’re just saying parents need to make that choice.”
North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program is one school choice option that seems to be constantly under fire. Governor Roy Cooper has vowed to abolish the program, and teachers unions have sued to block it. But Mike Long argues this is politics, and that data shows parents are in favor of the program and of school choice. “A January Civitas poll showed that 81% of people surveyed said that parents should be the ones to choose where their kids go to school. And 77% approved either strongly or somewhat strongly of Opportunity Scholarships.”
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Mike Long share PEFNC’s goals for defending and expanding school choice in our state.
TRACI GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. A lot is at stake this election season. Over the past few weeks on this show, we focused on the most important issues and areas of public policy that voters are considering. Today, we’re looking at education policy, specifically school choice here in North Carolina. We know there is a concerted effort by some to drastically cut back the great progress we’ve made on school choice in our state.
Mike Long is out front, helping to lead the fight as president of Parents for Educational Freedom, the preeminent school choice advocacy organization here in our state. Mike is a longtime friend of NC Family, and we’re grateful to have him back on the program today.
Mike Long, welcome back to Family Policy Matters.
MIKE LONG: It’s always great to speak with you.
TRACI GRIGGS: How school-choice friendly is North Carolina compared to other states, and how did we get to be that way?
MIKE LONG: Well, I think fewer states are more school choice friendly than North Carolina. We’ve done a lot, especially since 2011. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a state that has done more for school choice than the Tar Heel State. We eliminated the cap on public charter schools. We created a pair of really incredible private school scholarship programs for students with special needs and also those of low income. Both by the way just received important resources in a COVID relief package passed by the General Assembly. We have the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which last year helped over 12,000 children from these low-income families across our state. And now they’re able to access the school of their parents’ choice. We’ve also embraced a homeschool boom that has really taken place in our state. So, school choice is no longer a trend in North Carolina. We’ve got more than 20 percent of our students across the state that are choosing these more non-traditional educational opportunities. And we’ve just been the leader in that for many, many years. So, hard pressed to find a state that’s done more.
TRACI GRIGGS: Parents for Educational Freedom recently hosted U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Tell us why she was here, and what were the goals and outcomes of her visit?
MIKE LONG: She recognizes North Carolina is a leader in school choice, and she joined us for a roundtable discussion, along with Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, but we also had the President Pro-Tem of the Senate, Phil Berger, here with us. We had Joseph Kaiser, from Speaker Tim Moore’s office, join us and also Senator Joyce Krawiec and Senator Deanna Ballard. But more importantly for this Traci, we had three North Carolina parents with us. And the goal of the meeting was for Secretary DeVos to hear directly from these parents about how their children’s education was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. And the parents on the panel all had very different stories, but the common thread is that they know what their children need educationally. And to be sure they’ve always known, but the pandemic has highlighted this tenfold. Give you an example of the immediate outcome to our visit and what the parents said and what she heard: one mom spoke of her daughter’s anxiety and depression accelerating because of her lack of peer interaction and distance learning. And another spoke of her nine-year-old daughter with special needs who cannot physically sit in front of a computer for hours of remote learning. And you know, how often do parents get to share these challenges and struggles that they’re facing with a member of the federal cabinet, who actually believes that they know their children’s needs best. So, outcomes in politics don’t always come easily, and they rarely come quickly. But having someone like Secretary DeVos in her position will make all students, regardless of what educational option their parents have chosen, a priority.
TRACI GRIGGS: You know, Betsy DeVos gets a lot of flak in the mainstream media, but it sounds like you really like her.
MIKE LONG: Because of what I just described. You know, it is putting children, students, families, first, not educational systems. You know, a lot of people think and what we do that we’re not for the public-school system. We are, we are for public schools. We want public schools to be better. We just do not think that systems need to be prioritized here. We think that parents and families need to have the priority for them to make the choice of what’s best for them. If it’s the public school, great. If it’s the public charter school, great. If it’s a private school, great. If it’s a homeschool, great. If it’s virtual learning, great. We’re just saying parents need to make that choice. And so, we’re not trying to get rid of a system; we’re trying to reform the system, so that it can better meet the needs of families.
TRACI GRIGGS: Well, you mentioned the great impact that the pandemic has had on our educational system in the past year or so. Talk about that. What has been the impact of this shift to mostly distance learning because of the pandemic?
MIKE LONG: Really the interest of parents is the most noteworthy part of this because they need options. With schools closed and all of this going on, they need options. And we have been able to provide them many options by the work done here in the state of North Carolina. I mean, just look at the Opportunity Scholarship Program. In September there were over 15,000 new applications submitted for the program. There was funding for the 2021 school year for about 2,400 new seats. And again, you know, 15,000 new applications for 2,400 seats, I think that gives you an idea of what’s happened because of the pandemic. Parents are looking for these options. The numbers speak for themselves to the demand for more options. So, you know, our phones here at PEFNC, they’ve been ringing off the hook with parents who are looking for what their options might be, because distance learning is just simply not working for their child.
And, you know, the most heartbreaking of calls are from the parents whose children have special needs. Just take recently the School of Hope in Fayetteville that serves students with autism. I got a call, and they were telling me that when their school closed in March, their principal would have loved to follow suit with what other schools were doing like having a car parade by the school, so the students could see their teachers and see each other. And if anything, just to wave and say, “We miss you,” but they couldn’t do that, because they didn’t want to confuse and upset their children who may not understand why they can’t come to school. And these same students often have, you know, sensory processing disorders and the texture and feeling of a mask makes wearing one impossible. And some students weren’t able to continue their therapy, some of which are absolutely essential to helping them function daily. And I haven’t even mentioned the academics yet. So, just imagine how difficult it’s been for these students and these families and how far behind they can fall on so many different levels. So gratefully, you know, some of the relief for these families came with an additional $6 million in the COVID relief bill just passed by the General Assembly. This was championed by Senator Joyce Krawiec. And other changes have made to remove the red tape so that the Opportunity Scholarship can help parents that are on a waiting list K-1 to get these funds, and that was championed by Senator Deanna Ballard. So, the demand is there, and luckily the COVID relief bill is an incredible step in meeting that demand at a time when it’s needed the most.
TRACI GRIGGS: So, you’re referring to some in-person options for these students, right?
MIKE LONG: That is correct. And just expanding all of the school choice options for them. It just doesn’t make sense at all to take away options at a time like this, which some of our political leaders want to do.
TRACI GRIGGS: And so, you’re suggesting right that there are ways to do in-person instruction safely, especially for this most needy population.
MIKE LONG: There’s no doubt about it. Many of our private schools throughout the state are already doing that. They have been meeting and meeting successfully without any issues whatsoever. This is another reason why you’ve seen the homeschool just boom in our state. But our parents need more help. They need these options in order to free them. Think about working parents, you know, and yet, they have to stay home with their children because their school is closed up the road. They need help. And that’s why further expanding school choice options, especially during the COVID pandemic, is absolutely necessary.
TRACI GRIGGS: Okay. So of course, this is a focal point in the campaign for governor in North Carolina. Talk about the Opportunity Scholarship Program, and why do you think the current governor is so anxious to do away with that?
MIKE LONG: The Opportunity Scholarship Program is a program that provides $4,200 for students from low-income and working-class households to attend a private school of their parents’ choice. So, to see it as a focal point of this gubernatorial campaign is amazing, I think. In good ways and bad ways, because right now you’ve got $64.8 million invested in the Opportunity Scholarship Program out of a $24 billion budget. A program that constitutes one quarter of one percent of the entire state budget has become the enemy. This is a program that provides low-income families a lifeline to a school of their choice that just so happens to be outside the traditional public-school setting. It’s just amazing to me that our current governor just feels that this is just taking away so much from the education budget or the whole budget for the State of North Carolina. It’s not. It’s a drop in the bucket. But on the other hand, you’ve got a Lieutenant Governor in Dan Forrest, who’s committed himself to supporting expanding school choice for families in our state. And he sees the Opportunity Scholarship as the saving grace, and families who use it also see it that way. And it not only saves the state money; it also reduces class sizes in our public schools, which has been one of the biggest complaints. So, the focus that’s been on the Opportunity Scholarship Program and school choice in general sometimes make people feel that it’s controversial, but I want people to know that it’s not controversial at all. In fact, a January Civitas poll showed that 81 percent of people surveyed said that parents should be the ones to choose where their kids go to school. And 77 percent of those surveyed approved either strongly or somewhat with Opportunity Scholarships, and minority respondents were the most supportive. 78 percent of minority and people of color respondents said they support school choice.
TRACI GRIGGS: What are your priorities for expanding school choice here in North Carolina, both for you and other school choice advocates, for the upcoming years?
MIKE LONG: Well, our immediate priority is for students with special needs and ensuring funding for the Disability Grant and Education Savings Accounts. At the level that they are now, it’s not adequate. The demand is growing. It needs to be expanded. As it stands with the Education Savings Account program application that opens in February of 2021, there are $0 appropriated to that program for new scholarships right now. It’s already fully utilized. And so, nearly 2,000 students applied for this this past year. And the waiting list for these two programs has been far too long, way too long. And so, that’s why this election is so important. In a more general sense, it would be important to make a paradigm shift in education. We need to be looking at education in terms of putting the student and their needs first versus looking at what benefits the system; that’s the real key. We want more options for families. We want every family to have access to the school of their choice, regardless of their zip code or income. And I think we can and should be exploring new ways to empower every family and parent and student in our state through school choice. And that could mean by looking at the Education Savings Account model that we have now and finding ways to expand that.
TRACI GRIGGS: Great Mike, well, we’re just about out of time for this week. Before we go, where can our listeners go to learn more about their school choices and the work that you guys are doing over there at Parents for Educational Freedom?
MIKE LONG: The letters of each word of that long name of our organization, PEFNC.org, Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. Everything you need to know about the programs, how to get on the programs, is right there. And we also have another arm called Partners for Educational Freedom that will better inform listeners on where candidates stand. That is partnersnc.org, if you want more information on where your local candidates stand on school choice and so forth.
TRACI GRIGGS: Great, that sounds like a great resource. We also want to remind listeners that the North Carolina Family Policy Council has a nonpartisan 2020 Voter Guide now available on our Voter Guide website, that’s NCFamilyVoter.com. So, we’ve got some good resources between your organization and ours. Well, Mike Long, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, thank you 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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