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PEFNC celebrates school choice week

When it comes to school choice, one of the biggest advocates in the state is Parents for Education Freedom in North Carolina (PEFNC). As part of National School Choice Week, EducationNC talked with Brian Jodice, executive vice president for PEFNC, about the state of choice in North Carolina education. 

Below is a Q & A with Jodice, edited for clarity. 

Brian Jodice

Granados: Where are we with school choice, opportunity scholarships, charter schools in North Carolina?

Jodice: First and foremost, National School Choice Week for us is always an exciting time. As Parents for Educational Freedom, we try to be that voice for parent school choice 365 days a year. We try to be a voice for parents and families and many of the schools who participate in these programs. It’s always nice when you have a week to celebrate and put a national spotlight on it. Oddly enough, in a previous life when I was working in D.C. for a digital media firm, I used to do a lot of production and work in digital and online media and did a lot of video work. I used to travel with National School Choice Week and we used to do this whistle-stop tour. We’d travel the country. One year we went from California and went basically north all the way to New York City. The next year we went from New York City south and took a southern route.

So for me personally, National School Choice Week has always been a cool kind of national event because I’ve gotten some history with it and got to see it kind of out in the grassroots. Oddly enough, a few years ago  I was on the whistle stop tour and we traveled through Charlotte and we stopped at the aviation museum and this guy named Darrell Allison (founding president of PEFNC) was up there speaking and we had Governor McCrory there at the time and I was videoing. I flipped the video after we got done and here I am a few years later, vice president of this organization, so it’s just kind of this small fun world.

I remember talking to Darrell later when we were talking about joining the team and I said, ‘You know, you might not remember this, but I stuck a camera in your face three years ago during National School Choice Week.’ It’s always a fun week, I enjoy it personally, we enjoy it as an organization; it gives us another chance to put a spotlight on it.

One thing we like to do here is, how can we use the week to put the spotlight but also go see some stories that don’t get a lot of attention. We try to travel the state, go to some rural areas, shed some light on places that folks might not have heard of. On Monday we got in a couple of cars and headed west. We went to High Point to a school that does a lot for special needs kids, it’s called Piedmont School. They’ve gotten a focus on students with Attention Deficit Disorder and some other learning disabilities. We went there, which was really cool, and they’ve got eight kids on the opportunity scholarship program, 37 on the kids with disabilities grant. We stopped there and got to hang out with them for a little bit. We went to a public charter school out in State Road which serves Wilkes, Surry and Yadkin. They have a kid that travels from as far as Davie County. They’re a public charter school that has 42 percent of students with a learning disability. Ninety percent of their students are on free or reduced lunch, so they are really helping kind of a tough socioeconomic area but are also helping kids with special needs. Through our accelerator program we were able to deliver some critical resources in the form of grant support for them. We also went to another really small school in Yadkin County in the town of Elkin, North Carolina and they have 15 students — two of those students are on the opportunity scholarship program. It’s a single room, Montessori style. It’s really neat. To show you the diversity of what we see — it’s got a car wash on one side, a lunch spot on the other. It looks like it could’ve been an old restaurant. They’ve taken up the space and turned it into a school. They’ve got it blocked off based on the stations. The reason I tell you that is that we like to try to see different things. Tomorrow we’re going to Henderson Collegiate, which is a charter school up in Vance County, and it’s a chance for us to get out in these rural areas and see where that deep impact is, and it was fun to do that. That’s how we’re celebrating National School Choice Week here. Our president, Darrell Allison, will be at the American Enterprise Institute Friday on a panel that Jeb Bush will kick off. We stay busy with it and it’s a fun week to keep doing that kind of work.

Granados: So the General Assembly is increasing the budget for the opportunity scholarship program by $10 million each year. What are we up to with that right now?

Jodice: This school year, the 2017-18 school year, it’s about $44 million, roughly 8,000 to 8,3000 scholarships. We had a record number of applicants, over 10,000. I think we are at 7,300 to 7,400 accepted or renewed, but they are in a process of doing another round of awards for the spring semester. So a record number of applicants, a record number of students on the program. The way they forward-funded the program carries us to the 2028-29 school year. That’s when it’ll be $145 million and the program will have grown to 36,000 students. Every year, the goal is to grow around 2,400 students. What we’ve seen trajectory-wise this year leads us to believe we will be able to get there. Eight thousand to 8,300 this school year and growing to 10,700 in the 2018-2019 school year. That application opens up on February 1. The way they put the forward-funding model in place carries to 2028-2029 school year, at 36,000 students.

Granados: What if the demand is not that high? What happens?

Jodice: It’s something you’ve got to consider. If you look at the growth we’ve had over the last few years and the number that the program has grown, the amount of kids who have come on it, it was about 6,000 students two years ago; roughly 8,000 students will be on the scholarship this year. It’s a short track record because it’s still a very young program. So far, it’s been growing the way that it needs to. I think the next two or three years are pretty big years to see that continued growth, but if you look at where we’re at with private school choice right now in the state, for the first time ever we have over 100,000 students who are educated in a private school on a daily basis. We crossed over that mark this year. Same thing goes for public charter schools — over 100,000 students are in public charter schools, so you continue to see growing trends there. Oddly enough, homeschool still continues to be the vast majority of students who are educated in nontraditional means, with 128,000 students estimated.

The growth trends show that there’s this shift in parental school choice towards enrollment in non-traditional school methods. Our traditional public schools will always be the leading enroller of students in our state, as they well should be — there are upwards of 1.48 million students in traditional public school everyday. But I think based on the trends we see in families choosing nontraditional methods, based on the demand that we’ve seen on our end for families that are seeking information, applying for the program, folks that are re-enrolling, and new folks on the program, we feel confident that the genie is out of the bottle on this and there will be strength and demand in the program. That’s why a few years ago we were great supporters of that forward funding and why we believed it was a good decision by the General Assembly to lock that in. The demand is there, and it gives parents and schools some assurance that these resources will be there for them. The schools have to think about growth and how they grow moving forward and it’s good for their certainty to know that those things will be in place for them.

Granados: One of the big things for opponents of the opportunity scholarship program is accountability. They say that the money that goes to private schools needs to be monitored and the schools need to be held accountable for the education they provide the students. Towards that end, The Friday Institute is looking at the academic success of students who go to private schools on opportunity scholarships. Talk a little bit about accountability — whether that is important, and what you hope is accomplished with the study?

Jodice: It would be crazy to say there should be no accountability — that wouldn’t make any sense. We’re for not just educational choice, Parents for Educational Freedom has always been for quality educational options and if there’s a school that deviates from that, that’s not the kind of school that folks need to be looking into. All for accountability. The challenging part is folks that are against state-sponsored scholarships like the opportunity scholarship program can very quickly use that word: “There’s no accountability, there’s lack of accountability, we don’t know what these schools are doing,”  and that’s just not true. There are financial accountabilities that are put in place based on statutory law. As it pertains to the opportunity scholarship program, these schools have to do very specific things. All of these schools have to administer a nationally-normed test. Then there are some different statutory requirements in place based on how many students they have and how much reporting has to happen. There’s some financial accountability measures that have been put in place based on the amount of dollars they take in. They have to send from audit back to the state agencies. If you ever hear there’s no accountability — that’s not true. If you hear there’s a lack of it, I think that can be debated. The private schools that participate in the opportunity scholarship have to administer a nationally-normed test. If you look back in the history of our state, there was a time when all students in public school also took a nationally-normed test. That changed to a state-normed test. Our students weren’t faring very well on those nationally-normed tests and the decision was made to instill this state-normed test model. Our private schools today still administer the nationally-normed test and there are accountability measures there. All for good quality schools that are following the rules, doing the right things, reporting the way they have to.

As it relates to the work the team did at NC State with The Friday Institute, I think they should be commended. They traveled the state last spring, they tested students in private schools, and students that are considered their peers in public school as well. I know Trip Stallings (director of policy research at The Friday Institute) and the team are going through that data to put that comparative measure. As Trip would attest, nothing can ever be perfect or ideal probably the first time out, but something’s gotta start somewhere. We also knew that with the rise of these programs there would be a need for additional layers of accountability. If there is a way to look at opportunity scholarship students tested against their peers in public school  — you know that’s a big  part of it because you have to think about all the dynamics that go into it, socioeconomic, where these students come from. It’s got to be as close to an apples and apples comparison as it can be, and there’s a lot of challenges to get there, but our point is if it can get there, then great. It’s step one. Hats off to the General Assembly for naming this new opportunity scholarship task force that they established this last legislative session. Parents for Educational Freedom was honored to be named in that legislation. We have members of our team that sit on that task force. As they build and come up with their recommendations for the General assembly as it relates to strengthening accountability moving forward. I think all those things are moving in the right direction to add additional layers where there needs to be.

Granados: Let us talk about charter schools. The cap was lifted years ago and charter schools have continued to grow. One of my questions will be what number are we up to with charter schools. But a more important question I think is there has been a divide between rural and urban areas — urban areas tend to have more charter schools and there has been a little bit of a struggle making sure that rural areas that might be in the greatest need have access to charter schools. Are we making progress in that area?

Jodice: In 2011, there was a cap on public charter schools, there was 100 at the time. Since then, we’ve seen 75 percent growth, so we started this school year with 173 public charter schools in the state. I think at this point we are at 61 or we will have our 61st county with public charter schools. There’s been incredible growth on that front. Again, we are for quality educational options so we want to see good, quality schools come up in that space. Over 100,000 students are enrolled in public charter schools every day in North Carolina. The latest I’ve heard is that we have a waiting list of about 50,000 students who, if they could walk into a public charter school tomorrow, they would. So I hope you take that into account — 100,000 enrolled, 50,000 on a waiting list — so if there was currently the space and new schools are opening every year, it could be upwards of 150,000 if not more families in charter schools.

The next part is the rural aspect. For us, it’s an incredibly important part of it. We started the North Carolina public charter school accelerator in 2012. We go into 2018, and now it’s really just the North Carolina school accelerator because we are also looking into avenues to accelerating private school growth. It goes back to your question — we want to ensure that public charter schools are continuing to grow and offering families options, and the same thing goes on the private side of things because both kinds can offer more options for families. Rurally it’s challenging. Physically, 60 counties have a public charter school. However, 95 counties worth of kids go to those schools. So families are traveling sometimes multi-county lines to travel into public charter schools. Bridges Academy, where we were on Monday, is physically in Wilkes County and they pull from Wilkes, Surry, and Yadkin. Then they have one student whose parents drives them from Davie to meet. In rural areas, it’s a challenge to get children to these schools and you’ve probably seen work on that front as it relates to funding. One thing we are excited about in the Education Savings Account (ESA) program, it’s got funding where families can use the new ESA for transportation. With a special needs student that’s a big deal.

Families are traveling multi-county lines to get to public charter schools. This family leaves Davie and drops their student at a drop-off zone. Think of the kind of commitment that takes. I’ve got young children and you’ll do what it takes for your kids. That’s what’s happening. It’s why we wanted the accelerator to not just focus on Raleigh, Greensboro, Charlotte — but there’s a lot of fringe in our state. There’s a lot in rural western North Carolina and a lot in rural eastern North Carolina. When we went on the tour last year, we went up to KIPP Halifax. That’s a school that’s doing incredibly well, and that’s a really educationally, economically challenged part of our state. Maybe the most challenged county in the entire state, so it was really incredible. So we’ve put a focus on increasing quality educational options in rural areas. I couldn’t put a number on the growth where it’s been rurally but we try to put a focus on it, so it’s why we’ve helped schools like Bridges Academy and Henderson Collegiate. It’s been a focus for us here at the organization for us to make sure you can’t forget about those parts of the state. You know I grew up in Goldsboro, North Carolina — it’s a rural area. It’s good for us to give back and focus on these areas.

Granados: For Parents for Educational Freedom North Carolina, we are going to be coming up on a short session here in the spring. Do you have major things you are focusing on?

Jodice: One I think we’re all, we’re all looking back to see. This will be an interesting year with elections, short session, things coming from last session. Parents for Educational Freedom does consider ourselves the source for parental school choice. The reason I say that again is we want to be a help to families. Ultimately, as Parents for Educational Freedom, parents are who we are, so we want to be that. I say that because we want to do things that are helpful and needs-based. If you look at what’s happened and what our priorities have been. We formed our organization in 2005 — that other marker was 2011. There was a lot that happened between 2005 and 2011 that didn’t really pan out in any legislative policy changes — that was growing a grassroots movement for school choice and getting some steam for this. That was Darrell working out of Panera Bread.

If you look at from 2011 on, all those things hit on very specific things — it’s needs-based education reform. It’s not education reform for education reform sake. It’s not just school choice for school choice or growth for growth, we don’t view it that way. It’s gotta be needs based. Having 100 public charter schools was sort of this line in the sand, but it didn’t serve the students it needed, the families that wanted those educational options. It didn’t serve those rural areas that look to expand, so that’s why it made sense to eliminate that cap and grow from there. Our three private school choice measures that were established — the first private school choice measure in North Carolina is a special needs program. The opportunity scholarship program established that for lower class families, who, by no fault of their own, don’t have the resources to have school choice. The third program, the Education Savings Account (ESA), is established to help children with deeper levels of special needs so it opens up to different kinds of special needs spectrums.

We work from that standpoint and we’re always going to do what’s going to be helpful. We always hear from parents about what they want to see changed and adjusted. There’s a couple aspects of the ESA program that some families would like to see adjusted — namely families that are currently on the Children with Disabilities Act, if they’re enrolled in a private school, they’d like to see some sort of grandfathering in or the ability to automatically apply for the ESA program. I think we’ll look at those and see what we can do in that area, and from there carry the voice for families to try to be effective over there as well.

It’s been — you know us — we as an organization, it’s funny you know we do really really good work. I was fortunate enough when I was in D.C. to work with some national educational reform groups and I had a misconception about what was happening at the state level. When I was able to come to this group and really see what’s going on, and really see the kind of work that goes in on a daily basis, that’s cool stuff. Not everyone gets to see that — our opponents probably don’t get to see that — and that’s fine. We are here to be a voice for families. There are families all over the state and all they really want, especially when they’ve got young kids, is to put them in a situation that’s best for that child.

They’re all totally different: I’ve got a 6-year old and a two-year old; they’re two girls. They’ve got the same birthday. They have similarities. My 6 year old goes to Weatherstone Elementary School in Cary and we love it and she’s doing great there. And they’ve got a lot of similarities, and I can already tell young in their life, they’re going to learn differently, they need to be disciplined differently, they need to be encouraged differently, and nothing says they end up at the same school when they get older. One thing might work for one child and one thing might work for another. We’re just constantly going to try to help families find out what those options might be.

We are pumped about the web-based application system — NC Schools Around Me — because it helps families get an idea of what options they might have. We’re never going to tell a family: “Hey, you should go to this school.” We’ll say this is what’s around you, do the research, and here’s how you go into making a decision, versus telling them what to do. We’ve got a great team here and we’ve already hit 2018 with the ground running. We’ve got two programs with the applications open on February 1st. We have a whole team of parent liaisons. These are moms that live around the state; many have children in the program. They’re our team that help other families get the info and sign up so they’re getting ready. When February 1st hits, it’s time to hit the ground running on that.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.