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Home schooling grows, private enrollment slumps in Mecklenburg

Delany Dunlap, shown preparing for a robotics competition, was part of Mecklenburg County’s booming home school population last year.
Delany Dunlap, shown preparing for a robotics competition, was part of Mecklenburg County’s booming home school population last year.

Private school enrollment in Mecklenburg County dipped to a 10-year low last year, while home schooling hit an all-time high, newly posted state tallies show.

Reports on 2015-16 enrollment for those two groups come at the end of June, months after public schools report their numbers. They help complete the statistical snapshot of a county where educational competition is fierce, with charter schools booming and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools fighting to hold on to dominance.

According to those numbers, private school enrollment dropped slightly in Mecklenburg, from 19,205 the previous year to 18,524. That’s the lowest total reported since 2006, but Mecklenburg, which has 92 private schools, still leads the state in enrollment.

There’s no obvious explanation for the dip.

“From what I’m hearing from our schools, enrollment is strong,” said Linda Nelson, executive director of the Charlotte-based North Carolina Association of Independent Schools.

And the state’s latest directory shows that only three Mecklenburg private schools closed during the past school year, while seven new ones opened.

But the slump echoes findings of a 2013 U.S. Census Bureau study, which concluded that a national erosion of private school enrollment – seen most strongly among white students – seemed to be linked to the growth of charter schools. “Most states with a significant difference show a decline in private school enrollment and an increase in charter school enrollment,” the report noted.

Since North Carolina lifted its 100-school cap on charters in 2011, Charlotte has seen rapid expansion in the tuition-free alternative public schools, with new schools opening every year and existing schools expanding.

CMS saw its enrollment growth taper off last year, though it hasn’t actually lost students and still accounts for 77 percent of Mecklenburg’s students. It projects that most of Mecklenburg’s public school growth in 2016-17 will be in charter schools.

State reports show Mecklenburg’s private school enrollment peaking at 19,733 in 2009 and staying relatively steady between 19,000 and 19,500 for most years since. Last year’s total was the first to fall below 19,000 since 2007, and the lowest since the year before that.

North Carolina’s private school enrollment also peaked in 2009, with 98,545 students. Last year’s total of 97,721 is the highest since then.

Home-school growth continues

Across the state, the estimated number of home-schoolers topped private school enrollment in 2014, though they remain a distinct minority in Mecklenburg.

Home schooling has grown steadily since North Carolina legalized it in 1985. Advocates cite a number of possible explanations for recent growth, including increased access to online learning tools and resistance to Common Core standards that took effect in public schools in 2012-13.

“In the early days you had to be philosophically against the public schools to home-school. It was so hard and there was pressure from all sorts of angles,” Paul English of the Charlotte Home Educators Association said in 2014. “Now, it’s not only easier, but it’s more accepted as a valid choice. There really is very little stigma attached to it anymore.”

In Mecklenburg, the estimated home-school population grew by more than 1,000 students last year, to 8,773. Statewide it jumped by more than 11,000, to 118,268.

So what to make of all this? I see it less as a horse race than a kaleidoscope. Families aren’t neatly divided into four competing camps. Many have children in different types of schools, and individual students often switch back and forth as parents seek the best fit for them.

With plenty of changes on the horizon, from new charter and magnet schools to expanded public funding for private-school scholarships, the Mecklenburg school “market” is likely to remain in flux.