School choice continued to thrive in 2022

Students are seen in their classroom on Friday, Aug. 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Ron Harris)

RALEIGH — 2022 kicked off with an unusual announcement: Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper issuing his first-ever proclamation in support of School Choice Week.  

The proclamation surprised most school choice advocates as the governor has been clear during his tenure he believes public charter schools “steal” money from public education.  

Cooper has also repeatedly tried to end the Opportunity Scholarship Program for low-income students to attend private schools through legal and budget recommendations. During the pandemic year of 2020 when he closed the state’s schools, Cooper was quoted saying the program was “an expense we should stop.” 

Increasing numbers of parents in North Carolina have been opting for choices other than the traditional district schools for years. When the pandemic school closures and restrictions came along, even more parents headed for the exits.  

The leap from public schools to other options brought a steep dip in public education enrollment. The latest data shows North Carolina’s public school enrollment still hasn’t recovered; however, school choice options have largely maintained their gains in 2022. 

Early enrollment data released by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) showed the first month’s average daily membership (ADM) for traditional public school districts only increased by 1.1 percent over the previous year but enrollment was still down 3.2 percent when compared to the year prior to COVID-19. 

 In comparison, charter school enrollment was up 6.4% over last year and over 19% since the 2019-20 school year. 

“Public charter schools complement, rather than compete with, district schools. We’re all part of the public school family,” Executive Director of the N.C. Coalition for Charter Schools Lindalyn Kakadelis said in a statement. “That charter schools saw yet another sizable increase in enrollment this year hammers home the fact that parents both want and deserve options in public schooling.” 

The demand for charter schools existed prior to the pandemic. A 2020 report to the General Assembly stated that during that school year, 78% of charter schools had a waitlist totaling nearly 76,000 students statewide. 

According to a recent report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) examining school enrollment trends for the years during and after the pandemic (2019-2022), North Carolina was fifth-highest in the nation for charter enrollment gains during the pandemic. During the same period, North Carolina had the ninth-largest public school enrollment drop in the nation. Traditional district school enrollment went from 1,419,142 to 1,370,859 during the pandemic; a loss of 48,283 students. 

NAPCS’s report shows that overall charter growth had been and still is increasing and that minority students are the reason behind that growth both nationally and in North Carolina. 

In the years spanning 2019 and 2022, white student enrollment in North Carolina charter schools increased by 7.29% but Black student enrollment was almost double that, coming in at over 14%. Similarly, Hispanic enrollment skyrocketed to over 23%. 

Homeschooling and private schools also made gains during the pandemic. The gains appear to be leveling out in the last school year. 

Private schools enrolled 102,400 students across 769 schools during the 2018-19 school year. During the 2021-22 year, that number had increased to 115,311 students across 828 schools. That’s a 12.6% jump in student enrollment and an over 7.6% increase in the number of schools. 

Homeschooling had the biggest swell in student numbers during the first two years of the pandemic. 

During the 2018-19 school year, there were 90,688 registered homeschools and 142,037 students. 

Homeschooling saw a steep increase during the 2020-21 school year, likely due to statewide school closures and other pandemic requirement factors. That year, 112,614 schools were registered along with 179,900 students. 

A data cleanup by the state’s Department of Nonpublic Instruction scaled down the 2021-22 numbers to 100,904 schools and 160,528 students.  

Despite the popularity of charter schools in the state, various parties over the years have tried to sue over their existence. The most recent case over a municipal charter school law was dismissed this past spring by an N.C. Court of Appeals three-judge panel citing lack of standing and failure to show harm. 

On the national level, the Biden administration has issued new regulations for charter schools that critics say will decrease charter school programs and contain “onerous” reporting that is not required of traditional schools. A lawsuit with half a dozen plaintiffs has been mounted to challenge the regulations. Last month, the N.C. Coalition for Charter Schools joined the lawsuit. 

Lawsuits have also plagued the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) which offers low-income families scholarship funds to attend the private school of their choice.  

In October, a 2-1 ruling by the N.C. Court of Appeals sent the case filed against the OSP back to be heard by a three-judge panel in Wake County. That ruling reversed a decision the case should be heard by one judge issued by Wake County Superior Court Judge Bryan Collins. 

The N.C. Association of Educators had filed the current lawsuit. A past lawsuit filed in 2013 against the program failed. That case went all the way to the N.C. Supreme Court which ruled in July 2015 that the plaintiffs had failed to prove the program violated the state constitution. 

 N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law President Jeanette Doran called the lawsuit “meritless” and it is an “attack on religious schools in general.” 

“What they’ve done is challenge the way the program is implemented,” said Doran.  

She went on to noting the lawsuit has a “big hurdle” in front of it by trying to prove public funds used for the program aren’t accomplishing a public purpose. 

“That’s a big hurdle to get past — to say that the choices of parents are blocked or should be blocked because they are attributable to government,” Doran said. “No, they’re not. As a parent if you pick a religious school… you are picking a religious school. No one is forcing these parents or any other parent to choose a religious school.” 

The OSP was created by the legislature in 2013. Scholarship awards can total up to $6,168 depending on income thresholds for applicants and other criteria. 

Like homeschooling and charter schools, the OSP has seen steady increases in applications and grant awards. Per the NC State Education Assistance Authority (NCSEAA), 22,818 students enrolled in the program during the last school year.  

NCSEAA data also shows over $63 million in OSP scholarships offered to students for the 2022-23 school year. The program has maintained wait lists each year that average between 800-900 students. 

About A.P. Dillon 834 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_