Public school enrollment is down in N.C. as alternatives grow during COVID-19 pandemic

By Keung Hui, The News & Observer

RALEIGH — North Carolina's traditional public schools are fighting to hold on to their students as they lose ground to their competitors during the coronavirus pandemic.

Enrollment is down this school year in the state's school districts, even as it's increased in charter schools and likely in home-schools and private schools too. School-choice advocates celebrating National School Choice Week, which runs through Saturday, say this school year has shown what can happen when parents take more control over their children's education.

The initial closure of all the state's K-12 public schools in March forced students to switch to an all-virtual educational environment. It helped shape the decisions that families made for this school year and potentially for next fall, as well.

"Now more than ever, families in our state need to have access to school choice and the school make, model and style that they see is the right fit for them," Brian Jodice, executive vice president of Parents For Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said in an interview. "Education has been placed right in front of us and parents have been faced with their children's education like never before."

Mary Ann Wolf, president of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, says families deciding on their school options for this fall shouldn't forget traditional public schools.

"We appreciate that each family has had to make decisions that best fit their individual families' needs this year," Wolf said in a statement. "During School Choice Week, we lift up the many different school choices that are available to families within our traditional public schools, including robust virtual academies that districts across our state have implemented this year to accommodate all families during a time of extended remote learning, as well as traditional choice options that include a variety of magnet programs, dual language/language immersion schools, dual enrollment/early college high schools, and more."

Wake County's magnet school application period ends Thursday. Application numbers are down, which school administrators attribute in part to the decline in the district's enrollment.

The application deadline for magnet schools ends Feb. 5 for Durham Public Schools and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

The application period for Guilford County Schools, which offers more than 60 magnet and choice programs, opened last week and runs through March 3.

Fewer students in district schools

Enrollment has been dropping in the state's traditional public schools for the past several years. As of last school year, 21% of the state's 1.78 million K-12 students were not attending traditional public schools.

All signs indicate that trend will accelerate this school year.

There were 62,926 fewer students in traditional public schools in the second month of classes this school year compared to the same time last year. In contrast, charter school enrollment was up by 8,424 students.

Wolf says a significant part of the decrease is from kindergarten enrollment being down 11.7% from last school year. Some of those students could return in the fall.

State lawmakers agreed to keep funding schools at last year's enrollment numbers to avoid funding cuts. But no decision has been made yet on next school year's funding levels.

In contrast, other schooling options seem to have increased in popularity this school year.

Home-schooling numbers up

Final numbers for home-schooling and private schools won't be available until the summer. But early signs show they're both up this school year.

Between July 1 and Jan. 22, the state reported receiving 18,874 requests from families to open new home-schools. That's 10,789 more than compared to the same time the prior year.

The spike comes after the state website to register for home-schooling was down for nearly a week in July due to a tremendous surge of parental interest, The News & Observer previously reported.

"There will be a percentage of families who have made school-choice decisions during the pandemic who will likely stick with their decisions," Jodice said. "There may be some who home-schooled who may decide they very much like their choice."

Kelly Belk, a Morrisville parent, pulled her 10-year-old son out of the Wake County school system because he has asthma. She says that her family has helped make home-schooling successful for him.

But with no vaccine approved yet for children that young and new COVID-19 variants popping up, Belk said she may continue to home-school this fall.

"There has got to be a lot that happens to make me feel comfortable about putting him back in the public school system," Belk said in an interview.

Mark Jacobs, a Cary parent, pulled his 14-year-old daughter out of Apex High in October after frustration over how the school handled virtual learning. But after several months of home-schooling, Jacobs said he's researching private school and charter school options for the fall.

"Greater school choice is available," Jacobs said in an interview. "I appreciate the fact that charter schools and other avenues exist too. I hope that can expand."

More families get school vouchers

There's been a spike this school year in the number of families using taxpayer-funded vouchers. There are 14,720 students in the state's Opportunity Scholarship Program, 2,436 more than last school year.

State lawmakers made changes this year to make more families eligible, including raising the income eligibility limit for families and allowing more kindergarten and first grade students to receive vouchers. Families can get up to $4,200 per year per child to help pay for tuition.

Supporters hailed the changes as providing more options for families during the pandemic. Critics, such as the North Carolina Justice Center's Education & Law Project, say the changes will drain $272 million from the state over the next 10 years that could have gone to other things such as increasing funding for public schools.

"Harmful 'Opportunity Scholarship' voucher programs undermine public education, foster division, and undermine children's development while also costing the state millions," the N.C. Justice Center says in its new report published in December.

Private schools have been marketing how they're more likely than public schools to be providing in-person instruction during the pandemic. Some private schools have had to briefly switch to online-only classes because of COVID-19 outbreaks.

"We are at 99% of our enrollment goals for 2020-2021, and we have seen a consistently high interest in enrollment requests for next year across all campuses," Kelly Ellis, a spokeswoman for Thales Academy, said in an email. "We are also opening our newest campus in Pittsboro, NC this July, offering grades K-5."

Thales has eight campuses in North Carolina.

This year's enrollment gains would be even higher if not for the social distancing measures that private schools are making, according to Linda Nelson, executive director of the N.C. Association of Independent Schools.

"Many have seen an uptick from new families who want a face-to-face or a hybrid alternative when their public school is in full virtual mode," Nelson said in an interview.

Will families return to public schools?

What's unclear is how many of these new families to private schools, home-schooling and charter schools will stay or go to traditional public schools after the pandemic ends.

"When families get a taste for something new, they may like it," Nelson said. "Some will stay. But we want the public schools to succeed too."

Jodice, of Parents For Educational Freedom, said that when families are given choice, "it's hard to unring that bell." But he said school choice advocates and traditional public education advocates can work together if they come with an open mind.

Families can continue to rely on traditional public schools, according to Wolf of the Public School Forum.

"Our traditional public schools, which must always work toward ensuring all children can have equitable access to a high-quality educational experience, continue to welcome all students through their physical and virtual doors," Wolf said.