Perspective | It’s time to celebrate each and every educational choice

When you hear the phrase “school choice,” what pops into your head? There is a lot of misinformation out there about what school choice is and what it means. While many individuals assume that school choice only refers to programs for private schools, the term applies to a wide array of quality educational options.

This National School Choice Week, I encourage you to examine all of the options that fall under the school-choice umbrella.

For starters, did you know that school choice includes many options that allow parents to select other public schools? Most states allow some form of open enrollment, in which students can enroll in district schools outside their assigned neighborhood. At present, North Carolina stands as one of only four states without an open enrollment program, but hopefully lawmakers will authorize one soon.

Even though North Carolina families cannot access open enrollment programs right now, they can use school choice to select other publicly-funded options. Families can choose selective magnet programs, which offer focused curricula in topics like science or the arts. Parents can also homeschool their children, or enroll them in full-time online learning programs, completely free of charge. Or families can select charter schools, which receive public funding but have more flexibility than traditional neighborhood schools.

School choice also includes programs like the Opportunity Scholarship Program. That program permits students from low-income families to select the school that works best for them. Enacted by the legislature in 2013, the program has grown substantially in its first few years, such that over 10,000 North Carolina students received opportunity scholarships during the last academic year.

While people might know that Opportunity Scholarships exist, they might not know all the facts about the program. For instance, an analysis from the General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Division found that the program actually saved North Carolina taxpayers $17.3 million during the 2017-18 fiscal year. Moreover, most national studies have found that Opportunity Scholarships improve the educational performance of public school students, along with those who attend private schools using the scholarships.

In addition to Opportunity Scholarships, our state assists students with special needs through the Disabilities Grant and Educational Savings Account — both of which are serving over 2,000 exceptional students this school year and allow them to attend private schools uniquely suited to their circumstances.

The bottom line is that school choice does not, and should not, mean every child attends an independent school. Rather, school choice should focus on providing personalized options and empowering parents and students to select the best one that works for their needs. The right school for the right child — that’s the school choice goal.

What’s more, school choice makes the traditional public school system better. A great example of this is in the economic realm: When five companies, rather than just one, offer goods and services, they must compete by improving, innovating, and overall better serving the needs of their customers. The same holds true for schools.

Competition forces a monolithic structure like the public school system to listen and respond to what parents are saying. In contrast, proponents of the one-size-fits-all approach to education put a higher priority on protecting a system rather than serving families. We support the parent’s choice, regardless of what it is. That’s why we call it school choice.

From January 26 to February 1, parents, teachers, and students will participate in the more than 50,000 events comprising National School Choice Week — including over 2,000 right here in North Carolina. These events will showcase the millions of students nationwide who have benefited from school choice and introduce the concept to those who haven’t heard of it.

This National School Choice Week, I encourage you to take time to learn about the many quality educational options available to North Carolina families. You may find out about an option you did not know that could help your own children, or the children of a person close to you. Every child deserves the best education we can provide them, so I hope you’ll spread the word about school choice far and wide.

Mike Long is a 35-year educator with experience as a middle school teacher, an AP U.S. History teacher, a high school principal, and a head of school. Long is the President of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, a non-profit organization that advocates for quality educational options through parental school choice.

K-12 National School Choice Week Parents for Educational Freedom in NC Perspective