School-choice supporters celebrate gains in NC, but press for more

The school choice movement is on the rise in North Carolina, where advocates hosted a celebration Tuesday to mark their gains and to press for more opportunities for families to attend options other than traditional public schools.

Education policy changes made this decade by state lawmakers have helped create a trend in which enrollment in traditional public schools has declined while more students are enrolling in charter schools, private schools and homeschools. While supporters of traditional public schools decry the changes, school choice supporters argued Tuesday that North Carolina is now doing a better job of meeting the needs of individual students.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, center, sits with the students as he watches one of the presentations at a school choice rally held at the N.C. Museum of History on Jan. 23, 2018. Hundreds attended the rally where Johnson was one of the featured speakers. Chris Seward

“I’m excited to celebrate school choice and I’m excited to celebrate the fact that North Carolina is actually one of the leading states in our nation, giving choices to students and parents for them to decide the best way they learn,” state schools Superintendent Mark Johnson said to a crowd of about 200 people at the school choice rally. The event in Raleigh was sponsored by the N.C. Association of Public Charter Schools.

“We are all unique individuals,” Johnson said. “We do not have to subscribe to the notion that one-size-fits-all works for every student.”

Events are taking place around the country as part of National School Choice Week. But Johnson’s participation at the rally is another sign of the growing strength of the school choice movement in the state.

Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, said the state is following the road map of President Donald Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in deregulating and privatizing public education.

“It is time for the General Assembly to stand up and reinvest to North Carolina’s public school system that was at one time a hallmark of public education in the nation, where people were moving from all over the country to attend,” he said.

North Carolina has seen some major education changes since Republicans took control of the state legislature after the 2010 election.

State lawmakers lifted the 100-school cap on charter schools, which are public schools that are exempt from some of the regulations traditional public schools must follow.

Students from Torchlight Academy in Raleigh wait in line before they take the stage. Hundreds came to a school choice rally held at the N.C. Museum of History on Jan. 23, 2018. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson was one of the featured speakers. Chris Seward

Legislators also instituted voucher programs to help families attend private schools. Applications will become available next week for a new state program that allows families of disabled students attending private schools to get a debit card to cover up to $9,000 a year in K-12 expenses.

Traditional public schools still educate more than 80 percent of the state’s students, but that percentage has been dropping.

In recent weeks, reports have been released saying charter schools are taking money away from traditional public schools and that the state has fallen to a rank of 40th in the nation in public education.

Johnson, a Republican elected in 2016, was the most high-profile speaker at Tuesday’s rally. His longtime predecessor, Democratic Superintendent June Atkinson, said she never spoke at a school choice week rally.

“We are blessed to live in a state where our superintendent is a vocal supporter of school choice,” Rhonda Dillingham, executive director of the N.C. Association of Public Charter Schools, told the crowd.

But Jewell of NCAE questioned Johnson’s participation at the rally.

“It’s really disappointing to have Superintendent Mark Johnson celebrate the choices of for-profit charter schools and vouchers for private schools while he has remained silent on the cuts to traditional public schools and cuts to the Department of Public Instruction, and remained silent as we’ve plummeted to the bottom in per-pupil spending,” he said.

Johnson defended his participation at the event, saying it’s his job as superintendent to promote different educational options so every child in the state has the opportunity to work hard and succeed.

“Education is not a zero-sum game,” Johnson said in a news conference after the event. “We have proven today here at the school choice event that we can have great success in charters and magnets and online schools and great success in traditional public schools.”

The rally, relocated indoors to the N.C. Museum of History due to the threat of rain, included musical performances and speeches by teachers and students about the value of school choice.

Leticia Tuset, 17, a senior at Research Triangle High School in Durham, told the crowd that attending the charter school gave her the confidence she needed. Tuset lives in Raleigh but opted to attend the charter school because it has around 500 students, compared with more than 2,000 students at her assigned Wake County school, Millbrook High.

“It’s important to have choices,” Tuset said in an interview. “Large schools aren’t for everybody. Charter schools offer that personalized, one-on-one experience.”

The rally ended with Dillingham reminding the handful of legislators present that their work isn’t done.

“We need your support to grow the options necessary to meet the needs of North Carolina’s students,” she said.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

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