School ­­­choice during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Dr. Terry Stoops

Raleigh, NC – There’s always been overwhelming support for programs offering school choice opportunities for disadvantaged and special-needs children assigned to underperforming or unsafe public schools. Modest investments in school choice programs can improve the short-term educational circumstances and long-term economic prospects of vulnerable children.

teacher asking a question to the class
Photo by Max Fischer

Nevertheless, as elected officials fumbled plans to operate schools amid the coronavirus pandemic, families that never conceived that they would need access to educational options were forced to explore public, private, and home school alternatives. In some cases, working parents simply did not have the luxury of staying at home to supervise remote learning. As a result, they sought to enroll their children in schools that offered full-time in-person instruction. Other parents explored alternatives because they had legitimate concerns about inadequate safety measures or substandard instruction in the public schools assigned to their children.

Preliminary enrollment data for schools of choice

The NC Division of Non-Public Education will publish home and private school enrollment data next summer, so we won’t know the full extent of school choice utilization until then. Through August 24, the agency received well over 10,000 “notice of intent” filings to open home schools, and that number will continue to increase throughout the school year. I suspect that statewide home school enrollment will climb to an estimated 165,000 students this school year, a nearly 11% increase compared with last school year’s final tally.

During the initial months of the pandemic, school choice advocates worried that job loss produced by the ill-advised shutdown of the economy would devastate private schools. But the equally ill-advised closure of public schools led many families to make extraordinary sacrifices to send their children to private schools offering in-person instruction. Private schools that anticipated enrollment declines instead had waitlists at the start of the school year.

In September, Republican lawmakers successfully expanded eligibility and funding for private school voucher programs. I anticipate the state’s three private school scholarship programs to enjoy sizable enrollment growth as a result. Preliminary figures are available for two of the three programs: the Opportunity Scholarship Program for students from low- and moderate-income families and the Education Savings Account (ESA) for children with a documented disability. So far this year, Opportunity Scholarship recipients surged by nearly 20%, while families accessing the ESA increased by a modest 4.6%. Enrollment increases in the Disability Grant Program likely will fall somewhere in between.

Public charter school enrollment continues to rise. Charter school enrollment has increased by 7% since last year. North Carolina charter schools enroll over 125,000 students, or around 8.4% of the state’s public school population.

Public charter school enrollment continues to rise. According to the latest average daily membership data released by the NC Department of Public Instruction, charter school enrollment has increased by 7% since last year. North Carolina charter schools enroll over 125,000 students, or around 8.4% of the state’s public school population.

Opposition to school choice

Those who objected to publicly funded school choice programs before the pandemic remain active opponents of them now. For example, the pandemic laid bare the disconnect between the families’ needs and the interests of teacher unions and public school advocacy organizations, which continue to oppose state-funded voucher programs and the expansion of public charter schools. A document detailing the NC Association of Educators (NCAE) Summer/Fall 2020 campaign included the goals of changing “the balance of power with respect to the privatizers” and defending “public schools from privatization efforts spurred by ‘COVID Flight.’” “The fight to thwart the efforts of privatizers has never been more urgent!” declared Public Schools First NC in an email last week.

Public opinion polls suggest that the views of the NCAE and Public Schools First NC are the exception, not the rule. Gallup recently reported a 10-percentage-point drop in parental satisfaction with their child’s education. At the same time, there was a 5-point increase in the percentage of parents who say that they opted to homeschool this year and a 3-point increase in the percentage of parents choosing charter schools. All told, around 3 out of 4 respondents chose a district school this year, down from 83% last year.

School choice was already mainstream, but will it become a mainstay? If the coronavirus vaccine neutralizes the virus, district enrollment may rebound next year. But my sizable gut tells me that parents who were forced to seek educational alternatives for their children during the pandemic will appreciate the innumerable benefits of school choice and never look back.