NC is a national leader in charter and private school growth. Good news or a threat?
North Carolina has been one of the fastest-growing states in enrollment for private schools and charter schools since the COVID-19 pandemic. The state had the nation’s fifth-highest growth in private school enrollment since the 2019-20 school year, according to data released Tuesday by the Associated Press. During that same time period, North Carolina had the third-highest growth rate in the nation in charter school enrollment, according to a report released last week. The growth in charter schools and private schools coincides with continuing declines in enrollment in traditional public schools.
It’s a trend that could accelerate with state lawmakers approving universal private school vouchers and making it easier for charter schools to get approved and to add more students.
“North Carolina has shifted culturally and ideologically to where more people across the state say families should be empowered with school choice,” Brian Jodice, vice president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said in an interview. “Parents should be able to choose where they want to go regardless of their ZIP code or their income.”
But supporters of traditional public schools say the growth in private school and charter school enrollment is a threat to the system that still educates the majority of the state’s children. They’re questioning decisions by state lawmakers to give more money to charter schools and private schools while not complying with a court order to increase public school funding in the Leandro case. “It’s a huge concern and represents an existential threat to what traditional public schools do best, which is serve all students regardless of their ZIP code,” Todd Warren, state campaign strategist for Down Home North Carolina, said in an interview. Down Home North Carolina is a statewide progressive rural organizing group.
ENROLLMENT RISES IN PRIVATE SCHOOLS AND CHARTERS
The Associated Press has been tracking the number of “missing” students who’ve disappeared from the nation’s public school attendance rolls during the pandemic.
AP estimated 50,000 students were missing nationally from any kind of school as of fall 2022. That’s down from AP’s previous estimate of 230,000 students who were missing in fall 2021.
As part of the analysis, AP found that private school enrollment nationally has grown 7.8%, adding 268,000 more students since the 2019-20 school year. Of the 34 states that have K-12 private school data available, AP says North Carolina’s 22% growth rate is behind only Tennessee, Rhode Island, Washington and Florida.
North Carolina’s private schools added 22,809 students between the 2019-20 and 2022-23 school years. During that same time period, the number of students receiving Opportunity Scholarships more than doubled.
Also during that time period, North Carolina’s charter schools added 22,308 students. North Carolina’s 19% growth rate since the start of the pandemic was behind only Texas and Florida, according to a new study by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Charter schools are considered to be public schools but are exempt from some of the rules that traditional public schools must follow. Homeschooling has also increased in North Carolina since the pandemic. But the extent of the growth is unclear due to how the state has been removing thousands of families who had never submitted paperwork saying they were no longer homeschooling.
FAMILIES CHANGED SCHOOL OPTIONS DURING PANDEMIC
The growth rates for charter schools and private schools soared during the 2020-21 school year, when traditional public schools were largely in remote learning due to COVID-19. Many private schools and charter schools were quicker at reopening for in-person classes than traditional public schools.
“A lot of families who were not happy with a virtual-only option started to look at private school options,” Stephanie Keaney, executive director of the North Carolina Association of Independent Private Schools, said in an interview. “There was a large influx of families who had never looked at private schools who realized the benefits of being in-person outweighed the financial costs.”
Sen. Amy Galey, an Alamance County Republican, said the growth in enrollment in private schools and charter schools is not surprising considering what took place between 2020-22.
“When the governor shut down our schools and mandated online learning, students suffered from severe learning loss and parents saw their children were being indoctrinated with values contrary to theirs,” Galey said in a statement. “Families rightfully began looking for alternatives, and because of Republican leadership over the past decade, North Carolina’s robust system of school choice was prepared to absorb children damaged by the inflexible and autocratic approach taken by much of traditional K-12 during the COVID years.”
But Warren of Down Home North Carolina said it’s wrong to say that it was a mistake for traditional public schools to stay with remote instruction for so long.
“Our public schools are hubs for the community that go well beyond academics,” said Warren, a former Guilford County schoolteacher. “We did the absolute best we can absent a robust national response to a pandemic and came through. “Yes, numbers have continued to decline for enrollment, but the resources for privatization for private schools and for for-profit charter schools have continued to escalate.”
UNIVERSAL PRIVATE SCHOOL VOUCHERS COMING IN 2024
Even after traditional public schools returned to in-person learning, private schools and charter schools have retained their additional students. There’s no indication that the trend away from traditional public schools will slow down.
Initial enrollment figures from this school year show that traditional public schools dropped 0.4% and remain 50,000 students below pre-pandemic levels. At the same time, enrollment in charter schools grew by 4.9% this school year.
Private school enrollment for this school year won’t be officially released until next summer. But there was a 26% increase in the number of Opportunity Scholarship recipients this year compared to last school year.
There are 32,170 students receiving taxpayer funded private school vouchers this school year. Jodice predicts 15,000 to 20,000 more students will get an Opportunity Scholarship next school year. The 2024-25 school year coincides with new rules that eliminate family income limits for the Opportunity Scholarship program. There will also no longer be a requirement that voucher recipients had to have previously attended a public school.
Jodice of Parents for Educational Freedom said the number of recipients will skyrocket in the 2025-26 school year when the state provides $415 million for the voucher program — more than double what is currently funded.
“The bell cannot be unrung,” Jodice said.
Warren and other supporters of traditional public schools are hoping through the ballot box to reverse the expansion of the Opportunity Scholarship and charter school programs.
“There’s no doubt that some parents are frustrated with public schools and are seeking other options,” Warren said. “I would say that charter schools and private schools misrepresent what they can do and are not able to deliver.”