NC School Districts Shrink While Charter Enrollment Keeps Growing

Nov 22, 2019

Correction: An earlier version of this article included lab schools, which are affiliated with universities rather than school districts, in the charter school tally.  

It’s becoming a familiar story: North Carolina’s charter school enrollment keeps growing, while many school districts lose students. 

Seventy-eight of North Carolina’s 115 school districts have fewer students this year than last, according to first-month tallies recently posted by the state. They include Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Gaston, Anson, Catawba, Kannapolis and Lincoln schools -- all of which lost students but changed by less than 1%.

North Carolina state demographer Mike Cline says birth rates peaked in 2007 – those babies are in middle school now – and took a dive during the recession.

"So you have this downturn in that fertility rate and it hasn’t really recovered from that 2007 peak," Cline said. "That leads to the changes in the school age children, and for those age groups they’ve either maintained that level or, in some cases, declined a little bit."

Charter Schools Are Growing

As the number of school-age kids has dwindled, charter schools have claimed most of North Carolina's public school enrollment growth. The state lifted its 100-school cap in 2011, and there are now 196 charter schools with more than 117,000 students – an increase of almost 7,000 over last fall.

That comes from new charter schools opening -- there are 11 more than last year -- and existing ones expanding. At the same time, though, some charters closed or lost enrollment.

Charter schools are independent public schools that often pull students from two or three counties. Mecklenburg County alone now has 30 charter schools and sends students to at least 20 more in nearby counties.

That cross-county enrollment means the number of Mecklenburg students in charter schools is literally a $6 million question.

Last week the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board approved an additional $6.2 million in county money to pass along to charter schools, based on last year's projection that the county's total would rise by 1,550 students, to about 21,000 (that compares with about 147,000 in CMS). Each district must pass along a per-pupil share of the money provided by county commissioners, and each charter school bills those districts based on where their students live.

The day before the board's vote, Assistant Superintendent Akeshia Craven-Howell told WFAE that she'd received invoices from 46 charter schools totalling just over 19,000 students -- a slight decline over last year. But even though it's almost three months into the school year, she said she believes some charter schools just haven't filed yet.

Two of the three new charter schools that opened in Mecklenburg County this year either haven't filed or have sent incomplete information, Craven-Howell said last week. Her best estimate is that the projection for growth will be close.

Some Districts Growing Too

Overall, the state had 2,400 fewer students in traditional public schools this year, with a net increase of about 4,400 for districts and charter schools combined. In a state with 1.5 million students, that's  essentially flat.

But 36 districts added students – including Wake County, the state’s largest district, which grew by almost 1,500 students. Mooresville, Union, Iredell-Statesville, Hickory and Cabarrus County schools also grew, with Cabarrus picking up more than 500 students.

Growth can bring its own challenges. Cabarrus spokeswoman Ronnye Boone says the district plans to open two new schools and redraw boundaries for August 2020 to cope with crowding in some schools.

And if downward trends continue, some districts could face the loss of teachers or schools. But Cline, the state demographer, says he's seeing more of a leveling off than a plunge in school-age kids. 

"We expect, not a significant growth in school-age population, but at least some increases into the next decade," he said.

The state also tracks the number of students who are home-schooled and enrolled in private schools, but those tallies take much longer to compile. Nothing has been posted for 2019-20.