NC isn’t done yet when it comes to school choice 

By Shelby Doyle

Raleigh, NC – This week, I was talking with a radio host based in Charlotte, and she asked me how North Carolina stacks up when it comes to school choice. My answer: the state has a lot of school choice strengths, but some unusual weaknesses. 

Teachers and students from the First Ward Creative Arts Academy in Charlote, NC, celebrating School Choice Week. (photo courtesy of the National School Choice Awareness Foundation)

First, the good news. There are hundreds of public charter and public magnet schools throughout the state, and families are well-informed and eager to pick them. In fact, between 2019 and 2022, enrollment in public charter schools grew by 12%, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. 

Parents can also choose a free, public full-time online school, like North Carolina Virtual Academy and North Carolina Cyber Academy, both of which serve grades K-12. It’s hard to believe in this post-pandemic era, but not all states offer parents a statewide, public online option.

The state has a far-above-average Opportunity Scholarship program that helps low-income families afford the private schools they want to choose for their kids. The newly reconfigured Education Student Accounts go even further in empowering families of students with disabilities to choose private education for their children. Homeschooling remains a popular choice, and estimates of the number of homeschooled students in the state range from 160,000 to 200,000.

But, there are some particulars of the school choice landscape where North Carolina lags behind. I know too many parents who have grown discouraged about applying to public charter schools, because there simply aren’t enough seats available, and waitlists get intimidatingly long. Strangely, North Carolina is out of step with almost every other state in the nation with very scarce open enrollment opportunities within traditional public schools for families. 

All those options — or barriers — are more important than ever for families as they try to get their kids back on track after the pandemic. In a survey this month, most parents — 86% — are concerned about their children’s academic progress. They’re doing something about it, too: 54% of U.S. parents said that within the past year, they considered, or are currently considering, choosing a new school for at least one of the children in their household.

When it comes to looking for new options, black parents, hispanic parents, and young millennial parents between the ages of 18 and 29 lead the pack. Nearly two thirds of black (65%), hispanic (65%) and young millennial (63%) parents considered new schools for their children last year.

I applaud parents across the country who have been proactive and flexible in how they support their kids’ academic success. Many have already gone to great lengths to consider new options and fit them into their family’s lives. But many more don’t know how, or aren’t able to, choose the schools they think would help their kids most. During National School Choice Week, more parents start the process of choosing schools, or get more informed for a future decision. I hope with each annual celebration, they’ll find their state ready to empower them when it comes to school choice.

Shelby Doyle is the vice president of public awareness at the National School Choice Awareness Foundation, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that hosts National School Choice Week each January and maintains the nation’s largest online portfolio of English- and Spanish-language school navigation resources. She just relocated to Tennessee after spending the last six years in Fayetteville, NC.