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Analysis: North Carolina’s public school districts serve a shrinking share of school-age kids

Students in between classes at Ardrey Kell High School.
Ann Doss Helms
Students in between classes at Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Ardrey Kell High School.

Fifteen years ago, North Carolina’s school districts served 87% of the state’s school-age kids. Now that’s down to 77%, based on newly-released tallies of students who attended private schools or were home-schooled last year.

Decisions about where children go to school are fueled by a mix of personal factors and public policy. Legislators shape trends with decisions about public school funding and accountability, charter school authorization, home-school regulation and the state’s rapidly expanding voucher program. And the COVID-19 pandemic shook up attendance patterns when it disrupted in-person attendance at most school districts for more than a year.

Now, with data for two years that didn’t include remote classes, it looks like the state is settling into a pattern where families are using an expanded roster of alternatives to traditional public schools.

To get a handle on trends, WFAE looked at five-year snapshots, ranging from the 2007-08 school year to the one that just ended. Here’s what the numbers show:

Traditional public schools

North Carolina’s 115 school districts have long educated the vast majority of students, and that remained true last year, when almost 1.4 million students accounted for almost 77% of the total. But that’s slightly below the number enrolled in 2007-08, and well below the peak that came about a decade later.

Before the pandemic, school district enrollment had begun to flatten or shrink in many North Carolina districts, driven by a reduction in birth rates and increased competition from charter schools. Most saw dramatic drops in 2020-21, when schools spent the year in a mix of remote learning and in-person classes marked by mask mandates and social distancing .

Some of those students returned as normal in-person classes resumed, but last year most school districts remained below pre-pandemic enrollment. And in the aftermath of the pandemic, a national “parents’ rights” movement emerged to question what they label government schools. Battles over masks and vaccines evolved into challenges involving how reading is taught, how racism and gender identity are discussed in classrooms and whether schools offer inappropriate reading material.

For school districts, declining enrollment means a reduction in the number of educators the state will pay for. The federal government provided hundreds of millions of dollars in pandemic aid, which helped many districts avoid cuts, but that money is scheduled to run out in the 2024 budget year.

Shifting enrollment trends can also complicate planning for school construction. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will have a record-setting $2.5 billion bond referendum on the November ballot, designed to cover a handful of new schools and expansion of several existing ones.

Charter schools

Until 2011 North Carolina limited the number of charter schools to 100. When the General Assembly lifted the cap and opened the door to faster expansion of existing schools, enrollment surged, with the Charlotte region at the epicenter of charter school growth.

Fifteen years ago, before the expansion, North Carolina had almost 31,000 students in roughly 100 charter schools, accounting for 2% of total enrollment. Last year that topped 139,000 in 206 schools, accounting for almost 8% of total enrollment. The state also now has 10 small “lab schools,” which are similar to charter schools but run in partnership with universities.

Charter schools are run by independent boards, which must win state approval. They get state and federal funding, and school districts are required to pass along a per-pupil share of county education money as well.

Charter schools have more flexibility than district schools but are held to the same accountability standards, such as reporting test scores and getting school performance grades. The state has closed some of them after repeated academic, financial and/or management problems.

The growth in charter schools has generally offset district declines, but for 2022-23 the combined enrollment in the two types of public schools was slightly lower than it was five years earlier.

Private schools

Fifteen years ago North Carolina had 683 private schools with almost 98,000 students enrolled, representing about 6% of total enrollment. Now it has almost 127,000 students enrolled in 884 schools, accounting for almost 8% of enrollment.

Most of the growth came after the state approved the Opportunity Scholarship program in 2013, providing public money to help low- and moderate-income families pay tuition. Spending on that program has increased each year, with a dramatic expansion planned as part of the 2023-24 budget. Last year alone the state added 56 new private schools, and enrollment grew at its steepest rate in 20 years

The majority of North Carolina’s private schools are religious. None of them have to report academic or financial data to the public, even if they receive voucher money from the state. Republican leaders in the General Assembly say parent choice is the ultimate form of accountability; they now talk about “backpack funding,” with families at all income levels able to take a share of public education funding to whatever school they choose.

Home schooling

Fewer than 72,000 North Carolinians home-schooled their children 15 years ago, accounting for 4.5% of enrollment. Today that has more than doubled to almost 153,000, representing 8.5% of enrollment.

Growth in home-schooling has been steady. It surged during the onset of the pandemic, when families created small “learning pods” or held off on sending kindergarteners to school buildings, peaking at almost 180,000. The numbers have receded since then but remain above pre-pandemic levels.

North Carolinians for Home Education, a group that brings home-schooling families together for sports, field trips and social events, calls North Carolina “one of the most homeschooling-friendly states in the nation” based on laws that are easy to comply with. The state requires home-schooling parents to have a high-school diploma or its equivalent, to maintain attendance and vaccination records on students and to administer an annual standardized achievement exam of their choice. The state can request test results but there’s no penalty for low scores.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.