BYERS: I went to a public school — but I’m glad I had school choice

Imagine going for ice cream at a place with a single flavor. Even if the flavor is your favorite, wouldn’t you still want options? If not for yourself, perhaps you’d go for your friends who have different tastes. Similarly, supporting a variety of educational options does not have to diminish your appreciation or preference for traditional public schools. Support for one can actually complement support for the other. A diverse school choice landscape means that students in traditional public schools are there by choice, not because their zip code mandated it.  

January’s National School Choice Week was a time when people across the nation celebrated the diversity of education options in their state. In North Carolina, we have much to celebrate. Education in the state has transformed since 2011, when school-choice-friendly legislation became a priority for the state legislature. But the week-long event left many people wondering — what is the role of traditional public schools in the changing education landscape? 

In the 2010-11 school year, 13% of the state’s K-12 students attended a school of choice — public charter school, private school, or homeschool. By the 2018-19 school year, that number had jumped to 20%, representing approximately 356,000 students. 

In 2012, the year that I graduated high school, school choice was not thriving in the way that it is today. My experience of living in a rural area with a charter school option was unique at the time. Charter schools were capped at 100 for the state until 2011. The high demand in urban areas meant that many rural counties had no accessible non-traditional educational optionsPrivate schools and homeschooling were accessible only to families that could afford it.  

Looking back, I can attest that the presence of a charter school enhanced my experience of attending a traditional public school, because it was my active choice to do so. My family chose differently for one of my brothers, who graduated from the local charter school. Parents choose schools of choice for a variety of reasons — not because they are inherently “better” than traditional public schools, but because the definition of the “best” school varies for each family and even each child within a family. 

My experience is no longer unique. Last school year, 184 charter schools were operating across North Carolina. More good news is that the Opportunity Scholarship Program helps to make private options accessible for eligible families throughout North Carolina. As school choice expands, more of the students in traditional public schools will be there because their family decided it was the best option for them, as my family did for me.  

But that is not yet true for all traditional public school students. As the demand for schools of choice continues to increase, public policy will need to keep up with the public appetite for more educational options. Expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship Program is the next frontier for school choice in North Carolina. For too long, children have been denied access to better educational options simply because of their financial situation.  

On the other hand, lawmakers can also show their support for school choice by loosening unreasonable regulations on the state’s traditional public schools. School choice is designed to help all students — including those in traditional public schools — by increasing competition and driving up quality.  We need to recognize public schools can’t be competitive at meeting student needs if they are working with one hand tied behind their backs. Decreasing administrative regulations and increasing local discretion on questions of staffing and calendars are good places to start. 

From TV channels to shampoo, from cars to ice cream, we demand choices in every aspect of our modern lives. Education is no different. If schools are accessible and given adequate freedom to be successful, school choice can enhance the experience of all North Carolina students, just like it did for me.