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Open the doors of educational opportunity

By Darrell Allison

Leaders in the North Carolina Senate recently released a budget which seeks to expand the Opportunity Scholarship Program over the next decade. Bold and timely, I applaud this measure because it would meet parental demand. Over 22,000 applications have flooded into the program from North Carolina families in just three years ― proof positive of the growing need for educational choice. This program, which provides scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools, is empowering parents to select the school that best meets their children’s needs.

How’s it working out? Fayetteville mother Tanya Johnston, whose daughter receives an Opportunity Scholarship, says, “I’m one happy parent who would stand before anyone and testify that these changes have encouraged and positively affected my daughter, Joy, for the better.” Kim Paylor of Raleigh says, “This school year, utilizing the Opportunity Scholarship, my son is making solid academic gains. And due to the school’s ‘no tolerance’ towards bullying … he can finally be free to be the best he can be.”

Such parental affirmations, and many others I have heard, are heartening and embolden us to act. Families have submitted nearly 8,100 new student applications for 2016-17, including more than 3,000 renewals. However, current funding allows just 6,200 scholarships. Without intervention, funding won’t keep pace with demand. In response, the Senate budget’s 10-year expansion targets anticipated need by funding 2,000 additional scholarships annually. As a result, the program could serve 33,750 low-income children through nearly $145 million in funding by 2027-28.

Yet opposition persists. Opponents argue expansion will harm public schools. This is untrue. The Senate budget rightly addresses the primary role of public schools in educating students and provides historic pay increases for teachers. Even more critical resources should be directed to public schools in coming years. Public schools educate most ― nearly 1.5 million ― of K-12 students statewide, including my two daughters. Still, I believe this: The importance of public schools’ role in education doesn’t negate the need for complementary options.

Some say the beneficiaries of Opportunity Scholarships ― poor children ― are better served solely by public schools. The evidence indicates otherwise. Just 42 percent of economically disadvantaged children attending our public schools are proficient on state end-of-grade tests. Almost all schools earning an “F” on state report cards are high-poverty schools. How do low-income families feel about these odds? Of those fortunate enough to receive an Opportunity Scholarship, 90 percent choose to renew.

Opponents also stoke fear about “unaccountable” private schools, implying uniformity through state tests alone ensures a system of good schools. Paradoxically, the school leaders who raise this argument to fault the Opportunity Scholarship Program pressure our state to modify or remove some of these same accountability standards for public schools.

Certainly outside metrics are necessary, and private schools participating in the scholarship program must adhere to testing and reporting requirements. However, their requirements are not the same as those of traditional public schools, nor should they be. Spurious logic about uniformity has also been used, almost verbatim, to argue against public charter schools. Yet tens of thousands of students populate charter school waitlists, and many school districts are now advocating for a more charter-like approach ― less regulation, more creativity in curricular determinations, and greater flexibility regarding teacher certification standards.

We must face reality: our K-12 system does not educate poor, mostly minority, students well. Could it be that the 400-plus private schools participating in the Opportunity Scholarship Program might have something to teach students ― and us ― about innovative approaches to educating poor children?

Thousands of low-income families, for whom doors of opportunity have already opened, surely think so. But outside, more, like La Toya Allen of Charlotte, are waiting. “I want to do all I can so that (my son) won’t become another statistic,” she says. For him and many others, doors of opportunity needn’t be half-closed. Now is the time for North Carolina to open wide the door of opportunity.

Darrell Allison is the president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.

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