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Where do North Carolina African-American Voters Stand On Parental School Choice?

New poll shines light on the great divide between African-American voters and the differing views of their elected officials of color

Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina is an organization fully committed to the ideal of parental school choice. We believe this ideal – that parents, regardless of their address or income, should be empowered to choose the school best suited to the needs of their children – is one that every family in our great state of North Carolina can embrace. Despite advances and innovation in K-12 education, however, our current reality falls short of this ideal. Thousands of families remain disenfranchised and marginalized by our public K-12 system. Their needs have not been met; their voices have not been heard.

Where the need is greatest, the demand for options, including public charter schools and the Opportunity Scholarship Program, is astonishing. Demand for the Opportunity Scholarship Program is especially, even disproportionately, high among African-American families. Though African Americans comprise 22 percent of North Carolina’s population, according to U.S. Census data, they account for nearly 40 percent of all Opportunity Scholarship Program applicants.

We are mindful of the historic backdrop that has framed conversations about education, especially in a southern state such as ours. Race and politics have long been intertwined with education, and Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina has worked hard over the years to bridge those racial and political divides. But as applications from African-American families pour into the Opportunity Scholarship Program year after year, we face a conundrum: How do we reconcile such powerful demand for school choice with intractable opposition from elected officials of color – officials who, in many cases, count these same families as constituents?

These are lawmakers who wield great power at the state legislature. African-American legislators account for more than two-thirds of Democrats in the North Carolina Senate, and over half of Democrats in the North Carolina House:

Democrats in North Carolina House

Democrats in North Carolina Senate

We commissioned a poll to look for answers – to see if numbers we’ve witnessed are indicative of support for choice among the broader African-American electorate statewide. Our poll, which was also done in conjunction with our national ally, American Federation for Children, queried 800 African-American likely voters in North Carolina and was conducted between June 20 and June 28, 2016.

Here’s the really big news from our poll:

More than 8 in 10 African-American voters believe state lawmakers must do more to expand educational options for families in our state. This is nothing less than a clarion call to act!

This call to action is particularly strong from African-American voters who are Democrats: 82% believe state lawmakers must do more.  Other poll findings reinforce the sense of urgency. There is much to be gained and little to be lost for lawmakers and candidates who support choice.

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State government must work harder to help African-American parents. Fully 85% say state government needs to do more to provide educational options to African-American parents; only 7% think state government is doing enough.

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Support for school choice significantly enhances political candidates’ appeal. Among African-American voters, 65% would be more likely to support a candidate who favors giving parents expanded educational options; 14% say it would make no difference to them, and just 14% say they would be less likely to support such a candidate.

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There’s more exciting news: Our poll reveals substantial voter support for the concept of parental choice as well as for North Carolina’s initiatives.

“State-funded scholarships” is strongly endorsed by African-American voters. Almost two-thirds (64%) of respondents believe parents should be able “to choose the K-12 school their child attends through state-funded scholarships.” Just 20% disagree. Support cuts across political ideology: 65% of liberals, 60% of moderates, and 81% of conservatives want parents to be able to use state-funded scholarships.

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Nearly 6 in 10 favor school choice. Among voters, 59% favor the statement, “School choice gives parents the right to use the tax dollars associated with their child’s education to send them to the public or private school [that] best serves their needs.” Just 23% are opposed.

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Voters also support school choice policies specific to North Carolina:

  • Nearly 6 in 10 favor the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Among respondents, 58% have a favorable opinion of the term “Opportunity Scholarship” compared to 24% with an unfavorable view. Perceptions of favorability are inversely related to income: those who earn the least like the Program the most.

A majority supported the recent legislative expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Fully 59% support expansion; just 23% oppose it.Nearly two-thirds―65%―would apply for a scholarship if eligible. Just 23% would not apply. Among parents of school-aged children, 72% would apply if eligible.

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For almost a third of voters, personal circumstance trumps ideological opposition. 31% of voters who oppose choice would still apply for a scholarship if eligible.

What about public charter schools? Voters favor them. Support is slightly less robust for public charter schools than for state-funded scholarships, but 56% still favor these independent public schools; only 24% oppose them.

African-American voters also prioritize increased funding and support for public schools.

PEFNC’s poll asked voters to identify the one statement (out of six possible statements) most closely aligned with their views about K-12 education. A majority, 58%, believe this:  We should be working to better fund and improve already existing public schools in North Carolina.

You might wonder how this finding fits with the rest of the poll, which shows strong support for choice. Remember, respondents were asked to choose just one statement. Clearly, voters can support improving public schools and giving parents more educational options. Our poll findings bear out this reality: Among African-American voters who prioritize better funding and improvement of public schools, 50% also favor school choice. They want more options for families and better public schools. We do too. PEFNC has always stood on the foundation that school choice options are intended to complement, not replace, traditional public schools.  My recent statement commending the new budget affirmed this view.

On Choice, the Word is Out…But Work Remains

Overall, we’re very encouraged by this poll. We’ve pushed hard to get the word out about choice options, and our advocacy work is yielding powerful dividends. In just three years, families from all 100 counties in North Carolina have submitted over 23,000 applications to the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Among those low-income families familiar with the Program, demand is tremendous. However, this new poll highlights another ongoing reality: Overall familiarity with the Program is still unacceptably low among our state’s poorest African-American voters. We want to change that, working even harder to inform the families that need the Program the most. This finding will serve as a key motivator for us:

Half of African-American voters are “not very” or “not at all” familiar with the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Voters in the lowest income bracket are less informed than more affluent voters: 56% with incomes below $40,000 are “not very” or “not at all” familiar with the Program.  Familiarity is higher among parents of school-aged children: 56% are “very” or “somewhat” familiar with the Program, but 43% are “not very” or “not at all” familiar.

A Final Word

The opinions in this poll provide powerful evidence of what we have long observed: A great and puzzling disconnect exists between African American voters and their elected representatives. This new evidence emboldens us to push even harder than before to eradicate this disconnect.  We not only intend to give voice to the priorities and concerns of these constituents, but we also want polling information like this to likewise strengthen the resolve of their elected officials to stand firm with them on these important educational options. Stand with them and not against.

As families across our state embark on another school year, we can think of no better time to launch this important, yet challenging, conversation about parental choice and education in North Carolina. We hope you’ll be a part of it.

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For full poll crosstabs, click here.