Many of the controversies roiling public education are traceable to a system that assigns students to schools based on where they live. One North Carolina community that is working hard to remedy this problem through expanding educational opportunity is the town of Wake Forest.
School choice in Wake Forest is a story worth telling. How much choice do Wake Forest residents enjoy? In 2014-15, the school choice population – the number of students enrolled in charter, private and home schools – in Wake Forest was 23 percent, one of the highest such populations in North Carolina. That compares with a Wake County school choice population of 18 percent and a statewide school choice population of 15 percent.
Today, Wake Forest is home to eight public schools, two charter schools – plus a third on the way – and five private schools.
The number of schools, however, doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s also been a story of expansion. Solid test scores, high standards and a no-nonsense curriculum have boosted school choice in Wake Forest.
One such option, Franklin Academy, was started in 1998 and has grown to become the largest charter school in North Carolina. With a waiting list of 1,800, Franklin Academy may be one of the most sought-after schools in the country.
Thales Academy Wake Forest, a pre-K to 5th grade private school, opened in 2007. With annual tuition at about $5,000, the school is priced well below other private schools in the area. The school has proven so successful that there are now Thales Academies in Rolesville (junior high and high school), Raleigh (K-5), and Apex (K-5, junior high and high school), with more schools in development.
It‘s hard to ignore that the expansion of school choice in Wake Forest has corresponded with a period of tremendous population and economic growth.
Fifteen years ago, Wake Forest was a sleepy town of 12,000 people. Today the town has a population of 36,000, and a median family income of $75,050 (compared to a statewide average of $46,334.) With over 3,000 firms and retail sales of $455 million, Wake Forest boasts a reputation as one of the most livable and business-friendly towns in North Carolina.
So did school choice help to spur this growth? That’s a big and complicated question. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t take steps to begin answering it.
The Civitas Institute recently commissioned help to do just that. Professor Nathan Gray of Young Harris College in Georgia found a positive correlation between school choice and household income. Gray also found that, since 2000, income and housing values in Wake Forest have grown at rates that exceeded those of four comparable NC municipalities. And of all the comparable municipalities, Wake Forest had the highest percentage of students attending choice schools.
Of course, correlation doesn’t prove causation. Still, the data is compelling.
Professor Bart Danielsen, of North Carolina State University, has a powerful visual presentation of how choice schools in Wake Forest have served as community anchors, helping to attract families to the region. Danielsen has also written on how school choice in other areas can help increase property values, eliminate blight, revitalize neighborhoods and reduce crime.
A recent Civitas Poll asked voters what type of school they would choose if they could choose any type of school for their child. Thirty-four percent of respondents chose traditional public schools; 31 percent chose private schools; 19 percent chose public charter schools; and 8 percent chose home schools. Eight percent chose “other” or “didn’t know.”
Those numbers reveal a deep problem. Almost 60 percent of voters would prefer to send their children to a school other than the ones to which children are assigned. This is not bashing of the public schools. They provide a good education for many students. However, what about the nearly 60 percent of respondents who believe they aren’t getting a good education, or feel trapped in a failing school, or just want a different option? Do their opinions not matter?
It’s not just about one town, either. The News & Observer recently reported that last year (2014-15) Wake County Public Schools added 1,884 new students. The increase was the smallest increase since 1990 and was far below district and state projections. By contrast, enrollment in Wake County public charters, private and home schools grew by 3,357 students.
If we truly believe that all children deserve access to the best educational opportunities, isn’t it time that we follow Wake Forest’s lead and expand educational opportunity and let families make their own choices – especially when we can see that choice will benefit both students and their communities?