What Is Parental School Choice?

Parental school choice represents a simple but powerful idea: parents should be empowered to decide which school best meets their child’s needs, regardless of their address or income. Parents might decide that a traditional public school, a public charter school, a private school, or even a home school is the best educational environment for their child. But the bottom line is that they, not someone else, get to make this choice. 

Sound revolutionary? In many ways, it is. At its heart, the school choice movement is a parent-led revolution. And it’s transforming K-12 education across the nation and North Carolina. Each year, K-12 educational options for families continue to grow.

Twenty-six years ago Minnesota jump-started the charter school movement, passing legislation to create the nation’s first charter schools. Now 43 states and the District of Columbia have laws authorizing public charter schools. More than three million students nationwide attend these innovative public schools of choice.

According to EdChoice, 30 states and the District of Columbia now offer families opportunities to participate in publicly-funded school choice programs―through private school tuition scholarship programs (vouchers), tax credit scholarship programs, individual tax credits or deductions for education expenses, grants for students with disabilities that offset the cost of tuition or other expenses, or even education savings accounts (ESAs).  Hundreds of thousands of students across the country are benefiting from these school choice programs.

Lawmakers in six states have passed legislation offering families ESAs―what some are calling “the next frontier” in school choice. Five of these programs are currently in operation or are moving forward; Nevada’s ESA is in the midst of legal challenges and is not available to families.  What are ESAs? They’re bank accounts authorized by the state that provide public funds for eligible families to spend on approved education expenses. Qualifying expenses typically include tuition, textbooks, testing services, or education therapies. ESA programs have generally targeted families with special needs students. Listen to PEFNC’s President Darrell Allison explain what ESAs are and how they operate.

North Carolina offers parents a range of non-traditional schooling options as well as three state-sponsored private school choice programs. In fact, nearly 320,000 students in North Carolina now attend non-traditional schools―either through public charter schools, private schools or home schools.

Here’s a look at the current K-12 landscape in North Carolina, by the numbers:

  • Public school enrollment: 1,454,290 students*
  • Public charter school enrollment: 90,393 students*
  • Private school enrollment: 100,585 students*
  • Home school enrollment: 128,268 students*

*Source: North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI), NCDPI Office of Charter Schools, and North Carolina Division of Non-Public Education

What are the most common forms of parental school choice?

Public charter schools are independent public schools with greater operational and educational freedom than traditional public schools. However, public charter schools are required to participate in the same state testing and accountability program as traditional public schools. They earn annual report card grades from the state based on school achievement and academic growth, just like traditional public schools. Unlike traditional public schools, however, public charter schools can be closed if they fail to meet academic or operational standards.

Nationwide nearly 7,000 charter schools serve more than 3 million students. In North Carolina in 2017-2018, 173 public charter schools are operating across the state, enrolling almost 91,000 pupils from 95 counties.

Charter schools are popular with parents: a 2016 report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools found that 78 percent of parents support having a charter school open in their neighborhood.

Click here to learn more about PEFNC’s work to accelerate growth in public charter schools across our state.

Private school choice initiatives are taxpayer-funded scholarship programs that offset the cost of school tuition for families. Some states, including North Carolina, provide tuition scholarships directly to families; other states have passed programs creating education tax credits for taxpayers who give money to scholarship granting organizations. Some programs allow individuals to receive a tax credit or deduction for education expenses, including tuition.

Private school choice programs are generally created to serve the needs of families that otherwise would not be able to afford private school tuition. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, passed in 1990, is the nation’s longest-running contemporary private school choice initiative. This program currently serves more than 28,000 low-income students.

In 2013 North Carolina joined the ranks of states with private school choice programs for low-income students when the General Assembly passed the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP). OSP launched officially during the 2014-15 school year. These state-sponsored scholarships are funded at up to $4,200 a year and are renewable annually for eligible families.

OSP has experienced surging popularity and growth with each successive year. To date, North Carolina families have submitted more than 34,000 applications for these scholarships. Forward-funding of $145M by the North Carolina General Assembly will ensure OSP continues to expand over the next decade, and will eventually provide up to 36,000 students with private school scholarships.

Fast Facts on the Opportunity Scholarship Program:

  • More than 8,200 students have accepted Opportunity Scholarships to attend private schools for 2017-18, marking OSP’s first-ever year with full subscription.
  • Over 3,100 low-income students remain on the Opportunity Scholarship waitlist, hoping for a chance.
  • More than 90% of 2016-17 recipient families chose to renew their scholarships for 2017-18, revealing high rates of satisfaction.
  • Over 400 North Carolina private schools currently enroll Opportunity Scholarship students. The number of participating private schools with students enrolled has risen more than 80% since 2014-15.

Interested in applying for an Opportunity Scholarship? Learn more here about eligibility requirements, application deadlines, and whether your family might pre-qualify.

Special needs school choice programs help families meet the unique educational challenges and gifts of their children who have disabilities. These publicly-funded programs enable students to attend the school that best addresses their particular needs while offsetting the burden of tuition for their families. Special needs school choice programs exist because public schools are unable to meet the individual needs of every student.

At least 13 states, including North Carolina, currently offer some form of school choice program for special needs students.  Learn more about North Carolina’s special needs school choice program, the Children with Disabilities Scholarship Grant.

In 2017 the North Carolina General Assembly created a second state-sponsored special needs school choice program, the Special Needs Education Savings Account (ESA). PEFNC led the effort to advocate for this program. Learn more about Special Needs ESAs at exceptionaednc.org.

Homeschooling offers families tremendous choice and flexibility in education, as it gives parents full control over how, what, when, and where their children learn. Roughly 2.3 million students are home-schooled across the nation, according to the National Home Education Research Institute, and homeschooling is a legal educational option in all states. In North Carolina, an estimated 128,268 students are taught at home in nearly 85,000 registered home schools, according to the latest state numbers.

Homeschooling became a legal educational option for North Carolina families in 1985, when the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in favor of Larry Delconte, a homeschooling parent. In 1988 the General Assembly passed legislation that defined the parameters and requirements of home schools.

In 2013 the General Assembly redefined home schools, providing parents with additional flexibility in their teaching. Parents are no longer obligated to teach core academic subjects themselves and instead may choose other sources of instruction, including online classes, tutors, outside enrichment classes targeting homeschoolers, or even home school co-ops.

To learn more about homeschooling in North Carolina, visit the Division of Non-Public Education; click here to learn about state homeschooling requirements.