Fewer kids in NC are attending traditional public schools. What does that mean?

North Carolina has welcomed more than 116,000 new students so far this decade, but most of these newcomers aren’t going to traditional public schools.

Enrollment dropped by 5,562 students this year in the state’s traditional public schools. Meanwhile, charter schools, home schools and private schools gained 23,880 students, according to state data released this week.

Supporters of school choice say families are benefiting from expanded options provided by state lawmakers, including through the use of vouchers for private schools. But some critics say it’s part of a push to privatize education in North Carolina at the expense of public schools.

“You’re not going to tell families in North Carolina, ‘Public schools only,’ ” said Darrell Allison, president of Parents For Educational Freedom in North Carolina. “You’re not going to tell families that regardless of the school’s letter grade or how safe or not you are, you have no choice.”

But Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, says the expanded choice is part of a concerted political strategy to paint the public schools as failing. As an example, he cited the state’s school performance grades – A through F – that are largely based on the passing rates of students on state exams.

“It’s not an accident that we’re seeing an increase in scrutiny of public schools through testing and grades, which tell us nothing more than the socioeconomic status of the students at the school, and those same test grades are being used to justify providing more private options,” Poston said.

The education landscape has changed considerably since Republicans gained control of the state legislature after the 2010 elections. Lawmakers have made a number of education-related changes including:

▪ Lifted the cap on the number of charter schools and made it easier for them to expand their enrollment. Charter schools are taxpayer-funded public schools that are free from some of the regulations that traditional public schools must follow;

▪ Created a voucher program to help families who meet income guidelines pay for tuition at private schools;

▪ Created programs for parents of special-needs students to pay for their child’s tuition at private schools and cover other education-related expenses;

▪ Made it easier for home-school students to take classes from people who are not their parents.

“There’s been a lot that the Republican General Assembly has done to make it easier for parents to pursue these alternative educational environments,” said Terry Stoops, director of education research studies for the John Locke Foundation.

Traditional public schools have accounted for 19,854 of the state’s 116,444 additional K-12 students since the 2010-11 school year. Charter schools and home schools each added more than 40,000 students during that time period.

“I don’t see this as people abandoning the idea of public education,” Stoops said. “They’re simply saying I know what’s best for my child and I’m going to pursue an option that’s given to me to allow my child to thrive.”

Private school enrollment has only gone up by 4,356 students since the 2010-11 school year. But the voucher program, which will provide $44.8 million in state funding for the upcoming fiscal year, helped end years of declining enrollment in private schools.

Dominique Lyn said she wouldn’t have been able to enroll her 6-year-old son at Southpoint Academy, a private school in Durham, without the $4,200 provided by the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program.

“I’m not going to sleep worrying if my child is getting the educational options he needs,” said Lyn, who lives in Cary. “I’m now able to focus on helping him.”

Traditional public schools still educate the majority of students, with their 1.4 million children representing 82.1 percent of the state’s K-12 students. But the market share was at 86.6 percent in the 2010-11 school year.

The Wake County school system still saw growth this past school year, but its share of the county’s school-age population fell below 80 percent for the first time to 79.8 percent. That percentage will likely continue to drop; county planners project charter school growth will exceed the district’s growth this fall.

It’s time to rethink the idea of public education, according to Timothy Hall, director of academics at Thales Academy. Thales has six private schools in Wake County and is looking at expanding to 25 schools statewide over the next decade.

Public education should now mean educating the entire public, regardless of where they attend, to create “the best environment for best educational outcomes,” said Hall, who previously worked in traditional public schools and charter schools. “If we don’t create a public education that produces the best outcomes, what’s going to happen is North Carolina is going to fall behind the economic market in the 21st century.”

But what school choice supporters see as positive for families is viewed with alarm by backers of traditional public schools.

In Durham, the school system has experienced consecutive years of declining enrollment as more families choose other forms of schooling, particularly charter schools. Natalie Beyer, a Durham school board member, said the state has been pursuing a privatization agenda in education that’s moving taxpayer dollars away from democratic oversight.

“It’s alarming for taxpayers because in North Carolina we have state law that has created a separate-but-unequal loosely regulated system of (charter) schools,” Beyer said. “When I look at any measure of student achievement, statewide or nationally, all the research shows the best investment is in a high-quality public school system.”

Poston of the Public School Forum is sounding similar alarms about the voucher program, saying there’s almost no accountability in how the state is giving money to private schools.

“There are very powerful and well-funded interests that are seeking to profiteer off public education at the same time that our public schools are being tested and stigmatized by school performance grades,” he said.

Allison of Parents For Educational Freedom said that rather than complain, this is the time for traditional public schools to see what they must change to succeed in this new environment.

“When our backs are against the wall, when we’re forced to change, that’s where innovation comes from,” he said. “That’s where creativity comes from. I’m betting on our traditional public schools and our non-traditional public schools.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui