Baby bust? Enrollment in NC public schools flattens, even with charter boom

West Charlotte’s Movement School was the only one of three new Charlotte charter schools that met projections for opening enrollment.
West Charlotte’s Movement School was the only one of three new Charlotte charter schools that met projections for opening enrollment.

Mecklenburg County has almost 18,500 students in charter schools this year, an increase of 1,700 over last year.

But that’s well below the 2,600-student increase for charter schools Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools had budgeted for, based on what the independent public schools told CMS to expect.

And it illustrates a trend that’s shaping up across North Carolina: First-month numbers show the student boom that has characterized recent years is flattening out. The first tally is only 3,500 students over the same point in 2016, or about two-tenths of a percent growth in a state with more than 1.5 million students in public schools.

Before this the state had been growing by about 6,000 to more than 14,000 students each year since 2008, with much bigger increases in the years just prior to the recession.

The state’s two largest districts, Wake and CMS, both saw first-month growth of less than 1 percent, while 81 of the state’s 115 school districts lost students. In the Charlotte region, that includes Union County, down by about 200 students.

So what’s going on? State and local officials say it’s too early to be sure.

“We’re still growing, but the growth that we have is being absorbed in charter schools,” said Alexis Schauss, director of school business for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

Indeed, North Carolina’s total charter school enrollment topped 100,000 for the first time. That’s an increase of just above 8,800 students over the first month of 2016, and it includes more than 4,000 students enrolled in two online charter schools.

That trend has been in place since the state lifted its 100-school cap on charter schools in 2011. But it doesn’t mean every charter school can count on filling its classrooms.

Three new charter schools opened in Charlotte in August, and only one of them, Movement School in west Charlotte, met its opening enrollment projection. And a handful of other Charlotte-area charter schools have fallen below 200 students after grappling with building problems, leadership changes and/or persistently low test scores.

The obvious conclusion might be that students across North Carolina are switching to private schools. That’s hard to check out, because state tallies of private school enrollment always lag months behind those for public ones. The current list hadn’t been updated since 2015-16, an unusually long delay. In Mecklenburg County, the numbers that are available showed private school enrollment declining.

The state is helping pay tuition for 6,452 students across the state who have switched from public to private schools, under the income-based Opportunity Scholarship voucher program. That includes about 1,200 in Mecklenburg County.

The changes may be driven by a leveling-off of the school-age population in North Carolina, but the most recent Census estimate is for 2016.

The financial impact of the latest enrollment trends remains to be seen, too. The state takes the first two months of enrollment into account in calculating teacher positions and other budget items based on enrollment.

Charter schools bill local school districts on a monthly basis, with the tab rising or falling based on up-to-date enrollment. Those districts must pass along a per-pupil share of county money for each resident attending a charter school.

In Mecklenburg, the fact that there are fewer students in CMS and charter schools than anticipated means the per-pupil slice for both groups will be slightly larger.

Last year, CMS notes, overall charter enrollment for Mecklenburg students declined by almost 600 by the end of the year, as some families moved their children back to traditional public schools.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms