North Carolina School Choice Roadmap

By: National School Choice Week Team

Last Upated: January 19, 2023

Choosing a school? You’ve got options. 

If you live in North Carolina and are making a decision about K-12 education for your child, this post is for you. Where you send your child to school impacts whether they are inspired, happy, and equipped for success, and you may have more school options than you realize! This post will breakdown the six types of schools available to you in North Carolina, as well as provide additional education resources. 

North Carolina has a variety of learning environments to choose from. You can choose from traditional public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, private schools, online academies, homeschooling, and learning pods.

Looking for special education options? You can learn what special education services are available in North Carolina at the Ultimate Guide to Special Education.

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Traditional public schools do not charge tuition. They are managed by school districts and do not require students to pass tests to enroll.
Public charter schools do not charge tuition. They are usually managed by nonprofit organizations and do not require students to pass tests to enroll.
Public magnet schools do not charge tuition. They are managed by school districts and focus on themes, such as math, science, technology, and the arts.
Private schools charge tuition, but scholarships are often available via state programs or by individual schools. Private schools are privately managed and can be faith-based or secular.

      North Carolina Traditional Public Schools

      Most children in North Carolina attend traditional public schools. Traditional public schools are free to attend, open to all students, operated by school districts, and funded by taxpayers like you. Did you know that North Carolina spends an average of $9,958 per public school student each year? 

      Most states have some form of open enrollment, which refers to whether parents can send their child to a public school other than their assigned school. This is an important choice, widening parents’ options and ensuring that their zip code isn’t the sole determiner of their education. Unfortunately, North Carolina families generally do not have open enrollment options.

      There are, however, a few circumstances where a transfer might be possible. For example, a student may be able to request a school transfer if they move during the school year, if they are a child of an employee at the school they wish to transfer into, or if they are experiencing a unique hardship that would be mitigated by a transfer. For a real-world example, you may wish to check out Lenoir County Public Schools’ transfer request form.

      Find out more about public schools in your state at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

      North Carolina Charter Schools

      Charter schools represent another free, public school choice that is open to all students. These schools are distinct from traditional public schools in that they have extra freedom to innovate. Charters are accountable to authorizing entities for student achievement. Charter schools can share the fruits of their innovation with traditional classrooms. 

      The 2022-2023 school year marks 25 years since charter schools first opened in North Carolina. Today, the state has about 200 public charter schools and more than 8% of public school students attend a charter school. Eight additional charter schools are opening for the 2022-2023 school year.

      Each school has a charter which explains the school’s purpose and what specific community need it serves, whether that be providing a Spanish immersion program or offering a rigorous STEAM curriculum. If there are more families seeking admittance to a charter school than there are seats, a lottery system is usually used to determine admittance.

      You can also check out the North Carolina Association for Public Charter Schools.

      North Carolina Magnet Schools

      Magnet schools are free public schools that allow kids to narrow in on a specific learning track, such as engineering or the performing arts. Magnet schools teach all subjects through the lenses of that specific track. If there is one near you with a theme that interests your child, this could be a good school fit.  

      North Carolina has many magnet schools throughout the state. Districts with magnet schools or programs include Cabarrus County Schools, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Durham Public SchoolsSurry County Schools, Wake County Public School System, and Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.

      North Carolina’s magnet schools have themes that range from international languages to cosmetology, and from Montessori to digital marketing. In Surry County, one magnet school is even an online school!

      We interviewed one North Carolina magnet school, Atkins Academic and Technology High School. Principal Joe Childers described the philosophy of magnet programs this way: “When kids enjoy where they are, if kids feel engaged, that’s half the battle. If kids have an interest or feel connected, they’re going to try harder.”

      Future Tech Teacher

      North Carolina Private Schools

      In North Carolina, private schools (nonpublic schools that charge tuition) come in all shapes and forms. Private schools may offer a unique curriculum, smaller class sizes, or a faith-based tradition. There are more than 770 private schools across the state of North Carolina.  The average tuition for private schools in the state is $9,149 for elementary schools and $10,153 for high schools.

      There are a few state-run scholarship programs in North Carolina that can make private school more accessible to low-income families and children with special needs. The state’s Opportunity Scholarships provide vouchers to low-income children, which can be used for private school expenses. Students with certain special needs may also be eligible for the North Carolina Personal Education Students Accounts for Children with Disabilities Program, which is expanding for the 2022-2023 school year. 

      For a deep data dive into North Carolina’s private schools, check out this analysis of the state’s private school landscape

      Learn more at the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh School Directory and Private School Review: North Carolina.

      North Carolina Online Learning

      Whether your child wants to accelerate his or her learning or needs a quieter environment in which to focus, you may be interested in giving virtual school a try. Free, full-time online learning options available to families statewide include North Carolina Virtual Academy and North Carolina Cyber Academy, both of which serve grades K-12.

      Additionally, middle school and high school students may enroll in online courses part-time, or in some cases full-time, via North Carolina Virtual Public School. Especially in rural districts, some students use North Carolina Virtual to take classes not offered at their local school, such as an AP class, STEM class, or alternative class. Public school students interested in attending North Carolina Virtual Public School should connect with their school’s e-learning advisor, since enrollment takes place through local schools and North Carolina Virtual Public School does not grant diplomas. Students not enrolled in public schools may be required to pay tuition. 

      There are also some district-run online or blended options, such as Crossroads Flex High School, Charlotte Mecklenburg Virtual Schools, and Guilford e-Learning. A new partnership between NC State University and North Carolina Virtual Public School has created the Virtual School Network to support and connect local traditional public schools offering virtual learning.

      To read more about online learning in North Carolina, check out the Digital Learning Collaborative’s state profile.

      North Carolina Homeschooling

      Many North Carolina families choose homeschooling, the process of parents educating students at home.  In North Carolina, notice of your intent to homeschool is required prior to starting. It is recommended that you formally withdraw from your public school so your student is not marked truant. In the case that you decide to return to public school, you should notify the NC Division of Non-Public Education and contact your local principal for the enrollment process.

      While the state doesn’t lay out specific subjects that homeschooling families must teach, it does require that homeschooling students take a standardized test annually. Unfortunately, children who are homeschooled may face roadblocks if they want to participate in public school sports or activities in North Carolina. But, you can always look for other sports leagues and co-ops!

      North Carolina offers funding assistance for students with disabilities, including homeschooled students, through a state-funded program.

      We talked to one homeschooling mom and co-op leader, Kristin Jackson. Jackson never expected to try homeschooling. But, her son’s medical needs started her on a homeschooling journey that has turned her into an advocate. Now she’s working to spread the word about homeschooling as an education choice. 

      “We’re really looking to get the word out, especially to minorities,” said Jackson. “A lot of people of color don’t know about the opportunities to homeschool or they feel like it’s not something that people of color do. In Charlotte, there’s more than 600 families in our Facebook group alone, people in Charlotte and within the outskirts of Charlotte that homeschool. There’s a huge, thriving community for whatever you’re interested in.” 

      Find a great how-to about North Carolina homeschooling at the Home School Legal Defense Association. You can also find resources on the state’s Department of Public Instruction page, and at North Carolinians for Home Education

      North Carolina Learning Pods

      Micro-schools, pods, pandemic pods, and learning pods all refer to the same concept: students gathering together in a small group – with adult supervision – to learn, explore, and socialize.  Pods themselves can take a variety of legal forms, but in general they can be separated into two categories: self-directed pod (homeschool, homeschool collaborative, or micro-school) and learning support pod. It’s important to understand what kind of pod you are signing up for and the requirements that go along with it.  Learn more about learning pods.

      Self-Directed Pods:

      If your learning pod or micro-school is choosing its own curriculum and each family is directing their own children’s schooling, it likely qualifies as a homeschool in North Carolina. Read more about the requirements for homeschooling and get tips from HSLDA.

      If your learning pod contains more than two families and will have parents or other teachers leading unique classes just for your school, it will qualify as a private school. You can read more about what North Carolina classifies as a private school, how they’re regulated, and how to start one.

      Learning Support Pods:

      If your child is enrolled in an existing online school or local public, charter, or private school, and uses that school’s curriculum under the supervision of an adult in a learning pod, you do not need to register as a homeschool or private school. For example, read about an affordable learning support pod in Charlotte that partnered with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District.

      Note that the NC Department of Health and Human Services has required organizations to obtain a license in order to provide childcare for school-age children, but organizations contracting with a public school are exempt. 

      Education Resources for North Carolina Parents 

      For additional information about school choice in North Carolina, visit these resources: 

      North Carolina celebrates School Choice Week


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