Nearly 1 in 5 North Carolina students is not attending a traditional public school, and that percentage is likely to continue rising as more families choose alternative education options.
For the third year in a row, enrollment has fallen in North Carolina’s traditional public schools even as the number of students continues to rise in charter schools, private schools and homeschools. The percentage of the state’s 1.8 million students attending traditional public schools has dropped to 80.8 percent and is continuing to fall rapidly.
“Families are more attuned to and used to having choices at their fingertips, and that is entering education as well,” said Brian Jodice, interim president of Parents For Educational Freedom in North Carolina. “We’re no longer in this mindset that because I live at this address or this ZIP code I have to attend this particular school that works for many students but doesn’t have to be the only choice.”
But what’s seen as an expansion of school choice by some is viewed by others as part of an effort to undermine the state’s traditional public schools.
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“North Carolina has already embraced the privatization, the ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) agenda of dismantling public schools in favor of their donors who’d rather try to monetize what should be a public good,” said Kris Nordstrom, education finance and policy consultant for the N.C. Justice Center’s Education and Law Project.
The education landscape has changed considerably since Republicans took control of the General Assembly after the 2010 election. Changes have included:
▪ Eliminating the 100-school cap on charter schools, which are taxpayer-funded schools that are exempt from some of the rules that traditional public schools must follow. A total of 12 new charter schools will open this fall, raising the number statewide to 185. This year, legislators also allowed four Mecklenburg County towns to create their own municipal charter schools.
▪ Creating the Opportunity Scholarship program that provides up to $4,200 a year in vouchers for lower-income families to use to attend private schools.
▪ Creating two different programs for parents of special-needs students to attend private schools and pay related education costs.
▪ Making it easier for home-school students to take classes from people who are not their parents.
“We’ve created a climate in North Carolina that’s getting friendlier by the day to help families make choices in their children’s education and we’ll see the trend continue of more families making alternative educational options,” Jodice said.
Enrollment in the state’s traditional public schools has fallen each year since the 2014-15 school year, dropping by 14,293 students in that time period. At the same time, charter schools added 31,199 students.
Newly released state figures show that during that same three-year period, enrollment in homeschools went up by 28,896 students and private schools gained 4,516 students. Private school enrollment had been on the decline before the voucher program was created.
The enrollment disparity was particularly sharp during the 2017-18 school year, when traditional public schools lost 6,011 students from the prior year even as charter schools, homeschools and private schools combined added 18,093 students.
The percentage of students attending the state’s traditional public schools has dropped 5.6 percentage points since the 2010-11 school year.
Some of the drop in the state’s market share is due to the decline in enrollment in the state’s rural communities, according to Terry Stoops, vice president of research for the John Locke Foundation. But he said some of the change is also due to parents taking advantage of the greater number of choices now.
“I’m under no illusion to think we’ll ever have the majority of students in schools of choice,” Stoops said. “But I don’t think the growth is done. I think we’ll see another decade of steady growth in enrollment at schools of choice.”
The impact was noticed in the state’s two largest school districts.
The Wake County school system grew by 880 students this past school year — the lowest total in 34 years. At the same time, charter schools added 1,536 students. Private schools added 701 students and homeschools grew by 644 children.
The percentage of Wake County students attending district schools fell to 78.8 percent.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system planners are projecting enrollment will shrink in the district this fall at the same time charter schools add 1,800 more students. The district is educating 75.9 percent of the county’s students.
Declining district enrollment and rising charter school attendance has left the Durham Public School System with only 70.9 percent of the county’s schoolchildren.
“Parents are choosing with their feet, and it’s something that should be embraced,” Stoops said. “We should continue to welcome the fact that parents are now becoming more involved in their children’s education than they’ve ever been before due to the fact that they have more choices than ever before.”
North Carolina has consistently been lauded by national school choice groups. But those same policies have drawn criticism nationally from public school groups.
In June, the Schott Foundation For Public Education and the Network For Public Education issued a report giving North Carolina an F grade and ranking it 48th nationally among the 50 states and the District of Columbia for its “commitment to public schools.” The report criticized North Carolina for its policies on charter schools and private school vouchers.
“The narrative that’s surrounding the perception of public schools is being written by people who favor private schools and charter schools in the legislature,” said Stu Egan, a Forsyth County English teacher and a member of the advisory board of Red4EdNC, a teacher advocacy group.
Red4EdNC released last week its “Declaration in Defense of North Carolina’s Public Schoolchildren.” The document lists various grievances with state legislators, such as their support for charter schools and private school vouchers.
Critics of charter schools and voucher programs argue that the state isn’t doing enough to financially support traditional public schools. State legislative leaders tout that they’re providing record levels of K-12 education funding, but critics say that when adjusted for inflation the per-pupil amount is less than what was given before the recession of the late 2000s.
“We’ve had years of austerity budgets, and they’ve done nothing to address concerns of students of color,” said Nordstrom, of the N.C. Justice Center. “It’s not surprising that people are looking for other options for their kids when the General Assembly is failing to meet the state constitutional requirement of providing a sound basic education.”