Power is shifting towards parents

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RALEIGH — When I first began covering state politics and public policy in the late 1980s, North Carolina families dissatisfied with the quality of education provided by their local school district had limited options. Some could afford private schools, or to move to other communities where they hoped the assigned public schools were better. A few were brave enough to try homeschooling their children.

For most parents with concerns about their assigned schools, however, the only recourse was to complain to administrators or try to elect different politicians to their local school boards. Neither option proved particularly effective.

Since then, the situation has dramatically changed for the better.

For one thing, the state legislature created three new options — chartered public schools, opportunity scholarships for private education, and educational savings accounts for special-needs students — that provide a wide range of choices for many North Carolina families. During the last school year, for example, some 130,000 students were enrolled in the state’s charter schools. Another 20,000 students received opportunity scholarships to attend private schools. Some 13,000 additional students have applied for scholarships next year.

Partially in response to these policy changes, teachers and entrepreneurs have created new educational enterprises that seek to serve families in new ways. Some are new brick-and-mortal schools and networks. Others offer “university model” education that blend in-person and at-home instruction. Still others provide textbooks, resources, supplemental services, and other assistance to homeschool families.

And with regard to the governance of school districts themselves, many North Carolinians are part of a national movement to push back against slapdash instruction, politicized curricula, and operational decisions that fail to put the interests of students first. Initially frustrated by the lengthy COVID shutdowns imposed by state and local officials, parents grew angry when they saw firsthand what their children were being taught — or not being taught, as the case may be.

In the past, school-board elections were relatively low-turnout affairs in which local chapters of the North Carolina Association of Educators — the state affiliate of the nation’s largest teacher union — often played outsized roles. The NCAE’s influence is ebbing, however, thanks partly to changes in the timing and structure of school-board elections and partly to NCAE’s own missteps.

The organization is down to about 17,000 members, a tiny fraction of the total number of teachers and principals who staff North Carolina’s public schools. Even as NCAE was shrinking, it was becoming increasingly shrill and ideologically left-wing.

As a school-choice proponent and practitioner — my own children have attended a mixture of public and private schools — I recognize that many North Carolinians continue to cherish their relationships with their local school districts. They want their district-run schools to succeed, even as they also favor expanded options for families who want something different.

To advocate choice and competition, as I do, is not to advocate the abolition of public schools. In fact, I believe competition makes school districts better. That’s the way most other fields of human endeavor work, including preschool and higher education. As I’ve written about many times, there’s good empirical evidence for the proposition that increasing school-choice options in a community tends to improve student achievement and educational attainment within public-school districts, too.

Progressives disagree. They seek at least to roll back and constrain our school-choice programs, if not to abolish them altogether. They’re not going to succeed, though. The constituency for these programs is too large and growing too rapidly.

Would you believe that North Carolina ranks seventh in the nation in the share of children educated outside of district-run public schools? I didn’t either until I examined the latest numbers from EdChoice.org. Only Delaware, Louisiana, Arizona, Hawaii, Florida and Pennsylvania had higher percentages of kids enrolled in private, charter, or home schools.

According to the most-recent estimates, about a quarter of North Carolina kids were so enrolled last year. That’s going to continue to rise, no matter how loudly progressives complain about it. Parents’ voices are louder, and more numerous.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member.

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