Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood issued an injunction Feb. 21 that paused North Carolina’s new Opportunity Scholarship Program, a private school voucher program for low-income families. At that point, the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority had received over 4,700 applications for approximately 2,400 vouchers made available by the N.C. General Assembly’s $10 million appropriation last year.
But for the plaintiffs who sued the state to block the voucher program, this is not a case about low-income families or the North Carolina Constitution or what constitutes a “sound, basic education.” Their objection to the voucher program has little to do with the low-income families that they claim to champion. Rather, the goal is to protect a handful of entrenched and well-funded advocacy organizations that rightfully fear that educational choice will further loosen their grip on schooling in the state.
The left won this battle, but they will lose the war. In fact, the injunction may strengthen the resolve of the more than 4,700 parents who applied for an Opportunity Scholarship for their children.
My optimism is grounded in history and facts, not disposition. In fact, I am a pretty miserable person — an Eeyore, if you will. There is little doubt that educational choice is here to stay. More parents than ever choose to enroll their children in a charter school or a private school. Tens of thousands opt to educate their children at home.
The demand for charter school seats continues to outpace supply. Tens of thousands of families remain on waiting lists for charter schools that cannot expand fast enough to accommodate the demand. Most new charter schools meet their enrollment caps within one or two years of operation. I suspect that charter school enrollment will exceed 55,000 students this year.
Moreover, the N.C. Division of Non-Public Education estimated that nearly 96,000 children attended private schools and approximately 88,000 attended home schools last year. It’s just a matter of time before North Carolina’s private and home school populations reach 100,000 students, respectively.
Parents have voted with their feet. They want more, not fewer, educational options.
The demand for options will strengthen as parental dissatisfaction with the district school system grows. And there are plenty of reasons to be dissatisfied. Consider the following:
In Halifax County, only nine of an elementary school’s 180 students earned proficiency in reading or math last year. Again, that is nine students, not 9 percent.
Of the approximately 127 students who attended a community college immediately after graduating from one Guilford County high school, 115 — 91 percent — required remediation in math, reading, and/or English.
Last year, only about half of the low-income students attending one high school in Vance County graduated on time.
Both Halifax County high schools had average SAT scores that were more than 200 points lower than the state average.
The irony is that the left professes to champion choice and opportunity for the poor, yet actively opposes educational options that would provide both.
Too many low-income children are confined to low-performing public schools. School choice proponents want to open the door. Opponents want to throw away the key.
How much longer will parents tolerate district schools that fail to educate their children adequately year after year? If North Carolina’s history of expanding school choice is any indication, they may not have to tolerate them much longer.
Terry Stoops, Ph.D is Director of Research and Education Studies at the John Locke Foundation.