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NC charter school enrollment keeps growing while school districts stay flat

Once again, North Carolina’s total charter-school enrollment has climbed while most districts were virtually flat or declined slightly.

That’s based on a new first-month report for the current school year. It shows enrollment for charter and lab schools, which don’t report to local school boards, grew almost 5% compared with the same time last year, to 147,436. Charter schools are run by independent nonprofit boards. Lab schools, which are less common, are run by universities.

Meanwhile the state’s 115 districts lost a total of 4,872 students, down 0.4%. Districts have almost 1.4 million students, while combined enrollment in all types of public schools tops 1.5 million.

Enrollment affects state funding for teachers, local money channeled to charter schools and plans for school construction. For instance, Mecklenburg County voters will decide Tuesday whether to approve $2.5 billion in bonds for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. CMS has overcrowded schools in some parts of the county, even as districtwide growth has dried up and larger numbers of families are seeking other options. But CMS still accounts for more than 70% of Mecklenburg’s total enrollment, and the plan for spending bond money focuses heavily on upgrading existing schools.

The shift toward charter schools had begun before COVID-19 closed schools, as North Carolina kept adding charter schools while districts were leveling off or losing students. Most districts saw a sharp drop in 2020-21, which was marked by long stretches of remote or hybrid classes. Charter schools, which generally brought back in-person classes faster, continued to grow that year.

Now charter and lab schools are up from the pre-pandemic 2019 tally by 24%, or almost 29,000 students. That comes from new schools opening — there were 203 in 2019 and 220 this year — and existing ones expanding. Total district enrollment is down 3% over the same period.

Home-schooling and private-school enrollment have also grown in recent years, although data for the current school year is not available. Those reports come from a different state agency and are released at the end of each school year.

In the Charlotte region, enrollment in traditional public schools saw little change over 2022. Cabarrus, Catawba and Iredell counties, which are divided into two or more districts, saw bigger fluctuation among their individual districts, but when countywide enrollment is combined, they’re all within 1% of last year’s tally — as are Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Union, Lincoln and Gaston counties.

Cabarrus County’s current enrollment is about 3% higher than it was before the pandemic. Only eight districts are up by 2% or more over 2019.

Union, Iredell and Lincoln counties are within 1% of 2019 enrollment. CMS is down 4.1%, Gaston is down 2.5% and Catawba County, with its three districts combined, is down 3.7%.

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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.