School choice advocates around the state this week are celebrating their ability to choose a school other than the local public school to which their child is zoned. Charter school students and voucher recipients are wrapping up in yellow scarves embroidered with the words, "National School Choice Week," and carrying signs that say, "Got choice?"
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson praised the fact that in North Carolina, the answer to the question on that paper placard is, "Yes."
Johnson was the lead speaker at a school choice rally in Raleigh on Tuesday. A few hundred charter school students and a couple dozen parents gathered in the North Carolina Museum of History for the event organized by the Association for Public Charter Schools. The marching band from Bear Grass Charter School kicked off the event with a performance in the aisles of the auditorium, then the crowd heard from Johnson.
"We do not have to subscribe to the notion that one size fits all works for every student. School choice means a wide range of options," Johnson said.
Johnson highlighted that that range includes not only private schools and home schools, but also public options like charter schools, magnet schools, cooperative innovative high schools (where students earn associates degrees parallel to high school diplomas) and the state's virtual public school.
Johnson said school choice makes sense in an era where we're used to personalizing everything.
"We use our technology to personalize our news. We personalize our social media. You can even personalize your fast food order before you walk into a restaurant. It's time we personalize education," Johnson said, to cheers.
School Choice Ambassadors From Far and Wide
The Raleigh-based advocacy group Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina (PEFCNC) is the largest network of support for parents in the state seeking information about their school options. This week, the group's team traveled to three schools in the western part of the state to present grants for charter and private schools to improve services and projects.
PEFNC's founder and president Darrell Allison made long road trips like this in the organization's early days.
"I traveled the state, identifying pockets of the state where we wouldn't normally go, connecting with community leaders, educators and some family," Allison explained. "A lot of hard work, but the kind that has really paid off."
Allison would also meet and follow-up with both representatives and their constituents to talk about getting more school options in their areas. Allison said that laid the groundwork for major policy changes when both chambers of the legislature changed to majority Republican-led in 2010.
One of those schools was Bridges Academy charter school in State Road, North Carolina. This week, students there are wearing stickers that say, "School Choice Ambassador." The school serves many students with learning disabilities, who say they've gained confidence in a smaller school setting with a more flexible curriculum.
The school's principal Merry Lowe said the charter school she helped found in rural Yadkin County used to have a less amiable relationship with its neighboring public schools.
"I don't think the traditional public schools really understood us," Lowe said. "Now we work together."
The schools collaborate on transportation and grants and the local public school teachers will sometimes refer students to Bridges Academy, Lowe said.
PEFNC is also counting many victories. North Carolina is now widely considered a state leader in the number of school choice options and policies. Since 2011, the North Carolina General Assembly has passed a number of school choice measures. That includes eliminating the cap on charter schools statewide. And the Legislature has enacted three state-funded grant programs to help students pay for private education.
Low-income families can use Opportunity Scholarship vouchers to pay tuition at private schools. Parents whose children have disabilities that qualify for an individualized education program can apply for disability grants and, starting this February, education savings accounts to pay for a wide range of expenses from in-home speech therapy to specialized technology.
Parents of children who struggle with learning disabilities, whose children have been bullied, who want their kids to receive a religious education or who say their child's public school wasn't able to serve their needs have celebrated these policies.
Critics of the school choice movement argue those measures divert resources away from traditional public schools. They say the increased options have led to more segregated schools, and are not proven to improve test-based student achievement.
The philosophical controversy over vouchers and charter school expansion continues between neighbors and across kitchen tables all across the country, but in North Carolina, school choice advocates are celebrating this week.