The president of a prominent school choice organization said Monday that advocates need to set their sights on quality and availability when it comes to giving parents educational options.
“We must be just as vigilant about quality as we are about the growth of choice,” said Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom North Carolina.
His comments came as part of a presentation at the John Locke Foundation’s Shaftesbury Society. Allison’s talk was also right on time for National School Choice Week, taking place this week across the state and nation.
Allison told the audience about the growing number of students attending charter schools, homeschool, or private schools via the state’s opportunity scholarship program. He projected that by 2017-18, the student population in charter schools would be more than 100,000 students, up from 78,000 this year.
He is projecting more than 300,000 students taking advantage of either homeschool, charter schools, private schools via opportunity scholarships, or state virtual charter schools by 2016-17.
When talking about charter schools, Allison highlighted how far the state has come, particularly since it lifted the cap that kept the number of charter schools restricted to 100. He said there are now 158 charter schools in the state. But with success also comes introspection, he said.
“10 years ago we were fighting to get it,” he said. “In many cases, now that we have it, we have to ask ourselves some questions.”
Among those questions is whether choice is about simply expanding the number of options parents have, or making sure those options are superior. And it applies not only to charter schools, but to other choice options as well. Allison asked choice advocates to consider what they would say if the media highlights a poorly performing private school that opportunity scholarship students attend.
“Is the fire that burns within choice that we can do it better?” he asked at one point.
The discussion on quality highlights one taking place wherever charter schools are discussed. At a recent meeting of the Charter School Advisory Board, the debate on whether to approve Greensboro’s Next Generation Academy revolved around whether it was enough to give an underserved community an extra option or whether the Advisory Board needed to make sure that option was high quality. Ultimately, the board was split and the school was not approved.
Allison also pointed out the fact that of the state’s 100 counties, only 59 of them have charters. He said this presents a dilemma for the school choice movement.
“We say regardless of income, regardless of zip code, you can have a choice,” he said. “But the numbers just don’t bear that out.”
He said that choice advocates need to find ways to make sure those families and students aren’t left out.
Allison also touched on the advent of the state’s two new virtual charter schools, N.C. Connections Academy and North Carolina Virtual Academy.
At the most recent State Board of Education meeting, the Board heard that both schools have experienced high withdrawal rates so far this year — their first. Connections Academy reported 351 students dropping out in the first three months — almost 20 percent of total enrollment. And Virtual Academy reported 331 students leaving in the first three months — roughly 19 percent.
Allison didn’t mention the withdrawals but did say that the virtual charter schools were being carefully watched to see how well they do.
“All eyes will be on the progress of these two schools,” he said.
The John Locke Foundation, Allison, and others are celebrating school choice this week along with Governor Pat McCrory, who proclaimed this week “School Choice Week” in North Carolina.
This year is the 20th anniversary of the law that allowed charter schools to come into existence, and this week there will be many events across the state that honor school choice.
Terry Stoops, director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation, had this to say about School Choice Week in an article on the subject.
“Whether they’re attending public charter schools, private schools, or homeschools, more and more students in North Carolina have access now to education options that meet their needs better than the traditional district public schools,” said Stoops said. “National School Choice Week marks a great time to highlight changes in public policy that will pay dividends for the state, its families, and its kids for years to come.”