Michelle MacDonna’s son Michael won’t be joining the other students starting kindergarten this week at Cary Elementary School.
In what’s become a growing trend among Wake County families, MacDonna decided a traditional classroom setting wouldn’t be the best choice for her highly active son’s learning style. Now MacDonna is on a path with Michael, and in a few years with her 2-year-old daughter Gabrielle, to home-school.
“The plan is to have them home-schooled through elementary at least,” MacDonna said. “I’m not averse to having them enrolled in public education if something came up or if this wasn’t working out for our family.
“But we want to give it a try for at least two to three years.”
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Home schools, charter schools and private schools have cut sharply into the growth of the Wake County school system, where planners have scaled back growth projections because of the increased competition. Now planners project Wake will grow by about 2,000 students a year instead of by 3,000 or more children as in past years.
Wake has been directly affected by education policies put in place by North Carolina’s General Assembly that have slowed the growth in traditional public-school enrollment. When Republicans took control of the legislature in 2011, they lifted the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in the state and began in 2013 a program that provides taxpayer funding to help some families attend private schools.
As a result, charter schools statewide have added more new students since 2011 than traditional public schools. The voucher program helped reverse a statewide decline in enrollment in private schools.
Home-schooling has also continued to grow in popularity, adding more new students since 2011 than the traditional public schools.
Supporters of the legislative changes say parents are getting more say in how their children should be educated.
“There is no doomsday by any means, but I do think that the new reality is upon us,” said Darrell Allison, president of Parents For Educational Freedom in North Carolina, a school choice group. “There is real power now and there are legs now that follow parent demand, and that has to be appreciated and that has to be respected now in a real way.”
The upside of that growth being lower is that it’s allowing us to keep up with infrastructure needs. The downside of that is that’s a reflection of our community. Public schools in Wake County have been seen for decades as a driving force for this community ... keeping public schools strong is vital.
Wake County school board Chairman Tom Benton
But the changes could also erode support for traditional public schools, which rely on taxpayers’ willingness to provide money to operate and build schools. The Wake County Board of Commissioners is providing $397 million to fund the first two years of a $1.98 billion school construction program, and the next bond referendum could be on the ballot in 2018.
Wake County school board Chairman Tom Benton said district leaders are talking about the growing enrollment in charter schools, home schools and private schools and are monitoring the impact on the state’s largest school system.
“Growth of 2,000 students a year is more manageable than when we had 5,000 students plus a year,” Benton said. “The upside of that growth being lower is that it’s allowing us to keep up with infrastructure needs.
“The downside of that is that’s a reflection of our community. Public schools in Wake County have been seen for decades as a driving force for this community and surrounding communities. I think most governing officials and most public citizens recognize that keeping public schools strong is vital.”
For each of the past two years, the combined growth in the number of Wake County students in charter schools, private schools and home schools has exceeded the school district’s enrollment growth. In that time period, those three forms of schooling have grown by 5,632 students, compared to 3,880 students in the school system.
Families and parents at the end of the day do not care what the make and model of the school is. They just want a school that is going to work for their child.
Darrell Allison, president of Parents For Educational Freedom in North Carolina
The Wake school system’s percentage of the county’s student population is down to 80.5 percent. More than 38,000 of Wake County’s 195,353 students this past school year – or 19.5 percent – were home-schooled or attended private or charter schools.
Statewide, 17 percent of North Carolina’s students are home-schooled or attending charter schools or private schools. That number was under 10 percent in the 1990s, before the advent of charter schools and when home-schooling was still in its infancy.
“Families and parents at the end of the day do not care what the make and model of the school is,” Allison said. “They just want a school that is going to work for their child.”
Wake County is among the leaders in the state in the number of students attending charter schools, home schools and private schools.
There will be 20 charter schools open in Wake for the new school year, including one new school. Statewide there will be 167 charter schools, which are taxpayer-funded public schools that are exempt from some of the regulations that traditional public schools must follow.
It’s impressive that in Wake County there are so many choices for families. There are so many schools you can look at.
Mike Coan of Raleigh whose children attend Friendship Christian School
Families who don’t want to attend traditional public schools have also gotten a boost from the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program, which provides vouchers to help cover the cost of attending private schools. The state is providing $24.8 million in voucher money for the 2016-17 school year, with a proposed expansion to $144.8 million by the 2028-29 school year.
“When the Republicans took over, the floodgates opened for school choice,” said Mike Coan, a Raleigh father who pulled his two children out of the school system after getting voucher money to send them to Friendship Christian School.
“It’s impressive that in Wake County there are so many choices for families. There are so many schools you can look at.”
Wake County families have different reasons for thinking the traditional public school system is not going to work for their children.
Sonji Carlton’s children used to attend the Wake school system, but now all four are at Envision Science Academy, a charter school with campuses in Raleigh and Wake Forest. The Rolesville mother said Envision’s smaller size means her children get more individualized attention than if they were at a traditional public school.
“I like the family community feeling that you get in charter schools compared to traditional public schools,” said Carlton, who has since become a teacher assistant at Envision. “Those schools can be really big and daunting. The charter school’s makeup is much easier for us.”
Similar concerns about the large school environment led Latisha Hodge of Raleigh to pull her three children from the Wake school system. She thinks her youngest daughter’s Type I diabetes will be better monitored at Word of God Christian Academy in Raleigh.
“With Wake County schools they did great, but there were so many kids who needed medical attention,” said Hodge, who will receive voucher money for all three children. “I thought it would benefit her to be at a place where they could just focus on her.”
Venita Bowden pulled her son out of the Wake school system after he was reassigned to a different school last year. After spending time at a charter school, the Apex mother says her 8-year-old son has rediscovered the desire to learn now that she’s homeschooling him.
“I think in general the Wake County school system is fairly good,” Bowden said. “Life could change. I am not averse to (returning to) it, but is the Wake County school system going to offer something that is better than what he’s getting now?”
Bowden’s experience is something that Allison says he can see occurring more often as families move between the different educational options based on what’s best for them at the time.
“Parents want to be at the table to be able to have some authority, some decision-making power to choose the pathway for their child,” Allison said. “Families don’t look at these school models as isolated, disconnected types of schools.”
Historically, enrollment in private schools, charter schools and home schools decrease as students enter high school.
Wake County has responded to the challenge by offering more programs to try to to recruit and retain families.
“By having a diversity of programming for students that’s as easily accessible to as many parents as possible, you’ll see parents choosing the public school system,” said Tim Lavallee, vice president of policy and research for the WakeEd Partnership, a business-backed nonprofit group that advocates for public education.
Since 2011, Wake has added 11 new magnet schools that offer specialized programs to attract students. The district has also added several themed schools in recent years, such as single-gender leadership academies and the Vernon Malone College and Career Academy, where students can get specialized training in different career fields.
This school year, Wake is starting Crossroads Flex High School, which offers flexible hours and a mix of online and in-person courses. The school district is also working with Wake Technical Community College to open a high school in Wake Forest in 2017 modeled after Vernon Malone.
“I believe at some point that the market will become saturated for private and charter schools,” said Benton, the Wake school board chairman. “As we continue to be more responsive to community needs, that will hold and begin to attract students back to our schools.”