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Big money rides on how North Carolina tracks enrollment

Students in the lunchroom at Ballantyne Elementary School.
Ann Doss Helms
Students in the lunchroom at Ballantyne Elementary School.

This article originally appeared in WFAE reporter Ann Doss Helms' weekly education newsletter. To get the latest school news in your inbox first, sign up for our email newsletters here.

Every year I report on enrollment trends in our state and region. Over time those annual snapshots illuminate how school choice, demographic shifts and population growth play out in education.

These annual numbers are imprecise, because real students aren’t sorted neatly into buckets. The scene is more like a kaleidoscope, as families move and kids switch schools. Newcomers stream into schools for weeks after opening day.

A lot of state money for school districts and charter schools rides on how and when the state takes its counts. Alexis Schauss, chief financial officer for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, calls those tallies “the backbone of our state public school fund.”

“It’s about $13 billion, about 40% of the general fund. So it is a significant number, and 1% error has a significant impact,” Schauss told the Charter Schools Review Board last week.

DPI and local schools are working on 2024-25 budgets now. The state’s current funding formulas rely heavily on projections for the coming year, with adjustments made in November and December after actual numbers come in.

The General Assembly has mandated a shift to a system that relies more on the previous year’s actual numbers. If you want to dive in, check the slide deck Schauss used to describe the current and proposed methods. Let’s just say it was an understatement when Schauss dryly told the charter board “it’s not a simple process.”

The bottom line, Schauss said, is that change is overdue. She described the current method as frustrating, cumbersome and complex for the state, school districts and charter schools. It was created in the 1990s, she said, when the state had fewer and smaller charter schools. Now the state opens new charter schools each year, and existing ones are growing faster. For several years now, charter schools have accounted for most of the public school growth in North Carolina.

Enrollment patterns were upended in 2020, when traditional public schools opened in remote mode and in-person learning was spotty throughout the school year. The ensuing years have seen significant growth in private school enrollment and home schooling.

“Since the post-pandemic it has become very, very difficult to project accurately to that level that we really have to do to get solid budgets,” Schauss told the charter board. “The increase in home-school students has had a significant impact on our ability to project accurately and get a really sound budget number.”

A board member asked how the expansion of the state’s voucher program affects public school funding going forward. Schauss said it only affects enrollment to the extent that it encourages families to choose private schools over public ones. Charter schools have long been seen as offering some of the advantages of a private setting without the tuition bill. The Opportunity Scholarship program, which provides up to $7,468 per child, reduces and in some cases eliminates the cost of picking a private school.

Schauss will present the new formula to the state Board of Education next month. It’s unclear how this will affect classrooms. The one thing I feel safe predicting is: It won’t be simple.

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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.