I’ve been thinking a lot about schools lately. It’s only July, but the year rounds have started. First day of school pics are popping up on Facebook. Even the traditional schools are just a few weeks away.
I’m at that age where my friends and I think and talk a lot about our kids’ schools. They run the gamut: private, charter, magnet, public, home, virtual, religious, Spanish-immersion, arts focused, and on and on. I doubt there has ever before been such a range of options available to parents, at least in urban areas. (There are fewer options for parents in rural areas, but even there, the picture is improving.)
The statistics are really quite striking. When public charter schools first came into being in North Carolina in 1997-98, there were 33 across the state, accounting for 4,106 kids, or 0.3 percent of all public school students. Last year, there were 184 charter schools, with 111,604 students, or about 7.2 percent of the public school population. Those numbers have steadily and dramatically increased over time.
Similarly, homeschooling is booming, with more than 142,000 students in homeschools in 2018-19. Also, 102,400 North Carolina students were enrolled in private schools last year, and nearly 65 percent of those private schools were religious. Through over 11,000 Opportunity Scholarships, Disabilities Grants, and Education Savings Accounts last year, the state made these private schools accessible to parents who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford those options for their kids. In all, over 1.8 million North Carolinians are enrolled in K-12 schools and almost 20 percent of those are attending public charter, private, or home schools.
In addition, students in any of those schools can avail themselves of North Carolina Virtual Public School, where 32,000 students took almost 52,000 online courses last year. This increases the course offerings available to kids who may not have access to particular specialized courses through the schools where they are enrolled.
I find these numbers encouraging, not because I’m opposed to public schools, but because I know how different kids can be. Traditional public schools will serve some kids extremely well. I am, myself, a product of North Carolina public schools. As a foster parent, I’ve dealt with more than my fair share of schools over the past couple of years, most of which have been traditional public schools, and I’ve seen amazing teachers doing incredible things there. Even with the rise of alternative schooling options, the great majority of North Carolina students, about 80 percent, are still educated in these traditional public schools. So it’s important that these schools have high standards, that they work to meet the unique needs of all children, and that parents are engaged in their children’s education.
A long list of traditional public schools, a rapidly growing range of charter schools, a plethora of private schools, as well as the increase in homeschooling, means more families are able to choose schools that better reflect their values and meet the individual needs of their children. That may mean that parents choose religious schools to reinforce values and identity associated with their particular faith communities. Or it may mean that parents choose schools that emphasize the arts, or that immerse their children in a second language. Parents may choose schools with resources that are better able to address their children’s particular learning difficulties. They may choose schools with a different overall approach to learning and child development, like Montessori or Waldorf schools.
None of those schools are going to be right for every child and family, but that is what’s so wonderful about the proliferation of schools. There are more kinds of schools and at more affordable costs than ever before. Charters are public schools, so parents can choose those options with little to no additional costs to themselves. There are also more affordable private schools that have emerged in recent years, making that a real option for families. And resources for homeschoolers are better than ever, so it’s doable for more families. All of that empowers parents to make choices that are right for their children.
So when the families around me make vastly different choices about schools, I think that’s cause for celebration – even if those choices are very different than the ones I would have made. It means parents are actively choosing the schools that they believe will best serve their children and families. And that will yield successful kids in successful schools.
POVs are point of view articles from NC Family Staff and contributors.