Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article cited an outdated estimate of the Opportunity Scholarship waitlist total. The current total is now used for the overall waitlist estimation.
- Nearly 60,000 children are currently being denied enrollment into the school of their choice
- This waiting list is larger than all but three school districts in North Carolina
- Denying so many families access to educational options they would prefer is a crisis that must be addressed
It’s National School Choice Week, and the results are in: 92 percent of respondents in the most recent Civitas School Choice Poll say that parents should have control of where their students attend school.
Specific North Carolina school choice programs also had considerable support, and 67 percent of poll respondents indicated that the state legislature should do more to expand choice.
The Civitas School Choice Poll results demonstrate public support for parental choice. But, as the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words. The actions of North Carolina families clearly confirm that they desire more educational options.
About 1 in 5 students in North Carolina now attends a school of choice, which includes public charter schools, private schools, and homeschools.
The popularity of schools of choice has steadily grown over the past several years. However, it is important to understand the true demand for schools of choice is much higher than the number of students currently enrolled.
Across the state, an estimated 56,631 students are on wait lists for publicly-funded parental choice options. If waitlist students were a school district, it would be the fourth-largest in the state (behind only Wake County, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and Guilford County). The number of children currently being denied access to schools of their choice would overflow NC State’s Carter-Finley stadium.
The magnitude of the wait list clearly demonstrates that parental demand for choice is outpacing supply. This mismatch is due to government artificially suppressing supply – a simple remedy is to remove limits on choice growth and allow the programs to meet growing parental demand.
A majority of wait list students – approximately 55,000 – are waiting to get into a public charter school. Charter schools are publicly funded schools that operate outside of the local public school system. Instead, each charter has its own independent governing board. Charter schools can be operated by nonprofit or for-profit organizations. While charter schools do receive a per-pupil allotment from the state, charter schools receive no money for capital or facility costs.
North Carolina adopted a charter school law in 1996. The law originally capped the number of charter schools at 100. The cap was repealed in 2011, and since then the number of charter schools in the state has risen to 185, with 35 additional applications being considered as of December 2018. Charter schools now serve more than 100,000 students in North Carolina.
While removing the cap was a step in the right direction, there are still limitations on the growth of existing charter schools. For example, charter schools must revise their charter if their growth exceeds 30 percent in a given school year (Charter School Annual Report, page 38). Although progress has been made to chip away at those limits, these anti-growth policies contribute to the inability of charter schools to keep up with demand in many communities.
Private schools are another alternative to traditional public schools; but in many communities, private schools are not an attainable option for low-income families. State programs such as the Opportunity Scholarship, Children with Disability Scholarship Grant, and Education Savings Accounts help eligible students to attend a school that best fits their needs.
Opportunity scholarships provide up to $4,200 for private school tuition for students from low-income families. The program is currently at full capacity, serving approximately 9,300 students statewide. This year, there were 520 students that did not receive a scholarship and are now on the program’s wait list.
The Opportunity Scholarship amount of up to $4,200 for low- and moderate-income students is almost always significantly less than the $6,153 average per pupil state-funded expenditure traditional public schools receive. The award is also less than half of the $9,478 average that traditional public schools receive per pupil from all revenue sources. So, besides providing more freedom to North Carolina families, Opportunity Scholarships also save the state money. Savings from expanding the program could be used toward meeting a variety of current needs.
Similar to Opportunity Scholarships, the Children with Disabilities Scholarship Grant (CDSG) program provides up to $4,000 per year to families of special needs children to pay for private school tuition or other education related services. CDSG provides scholarships for over 1,500 special needs students in North Carolina. But for the school year of 2018, 331 eligible applicants had to be turned away.
Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) are state funds awarded to parents of students with disabilities for use on educational expenses. Under the current regulations, students could have up to $9,000 annually deposited into an ESA account. Funds could be used for private school tuition, school supplies, tutors, and other expenses. Of the 1,430 applicants for ESAs this school year, only 347 were awarded. The program did not provide data about how many of the 1,083 rejected applications met the program’s eligibility requirements. In the same year, 71 percent of new CDSG applicants were eligible. Assuming a similar eligibility distribution, ESAs turned away an estimated 780 eligible students.
North Carolina parental choice programs have been created in response to families seeking better educational opportunities for their children. If the demand for those schools did not exist, they would be forced to close their doors due to lack of enrollment. This stands in stark contrast to traditional public schools, which often operate insulated from parental preferences. The government is a third party in those transactions. Lack of a direct link between producers (schools) and consumers (families) can lead to a significant disconnect between what schools provide and what families want. Fortunately, parental choice programs can help to meet the increased demand for more educational options.
Parents with financial means have always had choices. Unfortunately, the lack of options often limits students who need it most.