(The Center Square) — North Carolina's public charter schools continue to witness significant enrollment gains, jumping nearly 20% since 2019, while traditional public schools remain 3.2% below pre-pandemic levels.
Data released by the state Department of Public Instruction last week shows the average daily membership for North Carolina charter schools has increased from 117,552 in 2019 to 140,133 in 2022, an overall jump of 19.2%.
Traditional public schools, meanwhile, went from an average daily membership of 1,408,592 in 2019 to 1,363,399 this year, equating to a 3.2% decrease in enrollment. The enrollment figures are based on the first month count.
"That charter schools saw yet another sizable increase in enrollment this year hammers home the fact that parents both want and deserve options in public schooling," Lindalyn Kakadelis, executive director of the North Carolina Coalition for Charter Schools said in a statement. "The reality is children have a better chance of reaching their full potential in a school environment that best suits their unique gifts. Sometimes that's a district school, and sometimes that's a public charter school."
The DPI data shows total student enrollment in North Carolina is now 1,503,532, or about 1.5% below 2019's total of 1,526,144.
As traditional public school enrollment declined by 5% between 2019 and 2020, charter schools witnessed a 7.6% enrollment increase, which slowed some to increase 4.2% in 2021 before jumping by another 6.4% this year. Traditional public schools gained back .8% of the 5% enrollment loss last year, and another 1.1% in 2022.
Analysis of the DPI data by EdNC shows nine districts experienced enrollment decreases of more than 10% since 2019, while 35 decreased between 5% and 10%, and 55 saw decreases of less than 5%. Only 16 districts have increased student numbers between 2019 and 2022.
The boom in charter school enrollment as traditional public schools struggle to recover from the pandemic is concerning for folks at the Public School Forum of North Carolina, which advocates for traditional public schools.
"Enrollment in charter schools and the number of charter schools overall in the state have been growing since the cap was removed in 2011, and it is more important than ever to keep a focus on how this growth impacts equity and opportunity for all students," Lauren Fox, the forum's senior director of policy and research, told EdNC.
Brian Jodice, executive vice president of Parents for Educational Freedom North Carolina, explained to the news site why the pandemic accelerated a trend of parents gravitating toward alternatives to the public school system.
"I do think the pandemic caused an additional uptick because those non-traditional options had the flexibility to physically open their doors faster than the traditional public school system, and there were many parents and families in our state who wanted their children physically back in school as soon as possible for a myriad of reasons," Jodice said. "If you couple the impacts of the pandemic on school enrollment with the growing movement in our state around a belief that all students should have access to the school of their choice regardless of income or zip code, then it should come as no surprise that we continue to see a rise in options like charters and private school choice programs like North Carolina's Opportunity Scholarship Program."
Bob Luebke, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation, told The Carolina Journal the situation is driven by the simple fact that "parents want more educational options for their children."
"That's one of the lasting lessons of the pandemic," he said. "The growth in charter school enrollment in North Carolina validates that sentiment. Our state has a healthy and growing charter school population. That's something parents, students, and anyone concerned about quality public schools should celebrate."