By Natalie Varma
Chocolate or vanilla? Walk or drive? Public school or private?
North Carolinians make choices every day – some more significant than others.
Anna Egalite, Associate Professor in the College of Education at North Carolina State University, wants to know how families choose between public and private schools. To do so, she studies the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which helps students from low-income families attend private school.
The program, established in 2013 by the North Carolina General Assembly, is run by the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority (NCSEAA) and was first launched in the 2014-2015 school year.
With funding from the North Carolina Collaboratory, Egalite and other researchers will execute a study based on three driving questions:
- In what ways have the characteristics of applicants to the Opportunity Scholarship Program changed since the program began during the COVID-19 pandemic?
- What reasons do families give for applying to the Opportunity Scholarship Program?
- What reasons do families give for why they subsequently did or did not accept the Opportunity Scholarship?
The answers to the first question will be gleaned from the analysis of administrative data previously collected by the NCSEAA. The answers to the other two questions will be collected from the results of a new survey.
“There’s a lot of misperceptions about who uses school choice programs and why.”
Along with basic demographics, the survey covers a wide range of topics, including respondents’ reasons for applying to the program, impacts of the pandemic in their decision-making, justifications for their first choice schools, and impressions of culture, leadership, and safety of various schools.
Egalite, who started as an assistant professor at NC State in 2015, has previously studied the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Her prior research utilized focus groups and surveys to gain insight into the experiences of principals and parents and a test score analysis to judge learning gains and losses among a sample of scholarship users.
Egalite said that for citizens of North Carolina, particularly those who use or have used the Opportunity Scholarship Program, this research provides a platform to voice their experiences – both the good and the bad.
“There’s a lot of misperceptions about who uses school choice programs and why,” she said.
Through this research, Egalite hopes to offer program users an avenue to combat those misconceptions or clarify their reasons for participating in the program.
Egalite believes the study is beneficial because it allows users to “express what it is that they’ve experienced so far and what they’re hoping to get out of their child’s education.”
With funding from the North Carolina General Assembly, this research is a joint effort between the NC Collaboratory and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI). Terry Stoops, the former policy advisor to State Superintendent Catherine Truitt, works to disseminate and apply findings from research like Egalite’s.
Stoops has previous personal experience in school choice research and believes this study will yield data that legislators can consider when making significant, state-level policy decisions.
“That’s really a powerful study that will find ample space in an academic journal, in academic conferences, and inform the kind of policies that are generated by the North Carolina General Assembly going forward,” Stoops said.
Egalite and the research team are excited to get the new survey out to the public and to see the results in the coming months.
“We’re ready. We’re so ready to put it in the field,” Egalite said.
Natalie Varma is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in Media and Journalism. She has worked as a communications intern with the North Carolina Collaboratory since the Fall 2022 semester.