Education

Wake County school system seeing fewer new students than expected

Third graders, from left, Jack McIlhargey, Alexis Trebeau, Krish Babu and Claire Nguyen work on making their own lesson plans at Cardinal Charter Academy in Cary, N.C., Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015.
Third graders, from left, Jack McIlhargey, Alexis Trebeau, Krish Babu and Claire Nguyen work on making their own lesson plans at Cardinal Charter Academy in Cary, N.C., Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015. ehyman@newsobserver.com

Growth in the Wake County school system is slowing down as more families are choosing charter schools, private schools and home schools as alternatives for educating their children.

Preliminary numbers for this school year show that charter, private and home schools added more students over the past two years than the Wake school system did. Though the school system has added 3,880 students over the past two years, the growth has been 1,000 students fewer than projected for each of those years.

This growth at alternatives to traditional public schools has accelerated in the past few years since the General Assembly lifted a cap on the number of charter schools and provided vouchers under the Opportunity Scholarship program for families to attend private schools.

Charter schools are taxpayer-funded public schools that are independent of traditional public schools and are exempt from some of the regulations that traditional public schools must follow. This freedom is appealing to some parents. For example, charter school students in Wake would never face reassignment, as some traditional public school students might.

“From a family standpoint, there is not a sentiment that traditional public schools are the only thing we’re going to look for,” said Darrell Allison, president of Parents For Educational Freedom in North Carolina, a school choice group. “They’re going to look for any option that will help their son or daughter.

“They don’t care if it’s a private school via a voucher. They just care that it will work.”

In the past, public schools could assign students to wherever they wanted to because parents couldn’t make a choice to leave the public schools. Now we’re trying to make every school a choice of high quality so that parents don’t want to leave.

Tom Benton, chairman of the Wake County school board

If the trend continues in Wake, it could affect areas such as funding for school construction and student demographics.

Options

New Wake County school board Chairman Tom Benton said the district needs to be innovative to remain competitive in recruiting and keeping families in North Carolina’s largest school system. At a time when people like choice, he said Wake must provide options to families.

“In the past, public schools could assign students to wherever they wanted to because parents couldn’t make a choice to leave the public schools,” Benton said. “Now we’re trying to make every school a choice of high quality so that parents don’t want to leave.”

Last school year marked the first time that the Wake school system grew less than charter schools, private schools and home schools. Those three forms of schooling grew by 3,357 students to reach 35,933 students. Last year’s 1,826-student increase at charter schools was only slightly less than the district’s 1,884-student increase.

The growth in the other three forms of schooling dropped the school system’s market share of the county’s students from 82.5 percent to 81.2 percent. Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, a group that backs the current school board leadership, said she doesn’t view the drop in share of students as being significant.

“As we have grown over the years to become the largest school system in the state, one thing has remained pretty consistent,” Brannon said. “We command the demand for the majority of students based on the quality of the school system.

“You’re getting over 80 percent of the students attending public schools, even though we’re a very large system that has had to face challenges over the past year from the General Assembly.”

While the district loses some students to charter schools, private schools and home schools, many students eventually return, said Tim Simmons, a Wake schools spokesman.

This year, the Wake school system grew by 1,996 students to reach 157,180 – 995 below this year’s budget projection and 2,165 below the projection used in 2013 to develop the current building program. Simmons said it’s too soon to say whether last year’s large growth in charter schools, private schools and home schools is continuing or if instead the district’s slower growth reflects that fewer people are moving into the county.

But initial figures such as an increase of 1,132 students in charter-school enrollment, 492 more registered home schools and 129 more students receiving vouchers indicates that last year might not be a blip.

‘Overstated’

Before voters approved $810 million in school construction bonds in a 2013 referendum, opponents argued that the school system was underestimating how many families would choose other forms of schooling.

“Given that their projections have historically been overstated, they didn’t need as much new construction to absorb growth,” said Tony Pecoraro, vice president of the Wake County Taxpayers Association.

But Benton, the school board chairman, said increasing by nearly 2,000 students a year is still significant growth. He said that slower growth could allow Wake to address the fact that nearly 25,000 students attend classes in temporary classrooms such as trailers.

“If we get a break in the growth, maybe we can eat into the number of students in temporary classrooms, and maybe we can speed up renovating schools like East Wake Middle and Fuquay-Varina High if the trend continues,” Benton said.

Charter schools have been the fastest-growing alternative to the Wake school system this decade. Before the legislature lifted the state’s cap of 100 charter schools in 2011, 5,398 Wake County students were attending charter schools across the state, including at 13 schools in Wake County.

This school year, there are 9,726 Wake County students attending charter schools, with 19 open in the county. Four more charter schools in Wake County have gotten preliminary state approval to open in 2016.

School choice raises the bar for all schools in the community. It raises the bar to make sure we’re paying attention to the needs of the students.

Crystal Scillitani, principal of Cardinal Charter Academy in Cary

Benton said he’s not as concerned about the number of families choosing alternatives to the school system as he is about the demographic makeup of charter schools. Charter schools are more likely to have either high concentrations of white students or high percentages of minority students than the district’s schools.

“As they become more segregated, it can lead to more segregation in our school system,” Benton said of charter schools. “It makes it more challenging to maintain diverse public schools.”

But Crystal Scillitani, principal of Cardinal Charter Academy in Cary, said her school’s 912 students are as eclectic as any district school. Cardinal’s enrollment is 52 percent white, compared with 48 percent for the district.

Demand has been high at Cardinal since it opened last school year. Scillitani said she had 1,500 applicants last year and 1,200 this year. She said the majority of her students came from the Wake school system.

“School choice raises the bar for all schools in the community,” said Scillitani, a former principal in the Wake school system. “It raises the bar to make sure we’re paying attention to the needs of the students.”

Allison, president of Parents For Educational Freedom, said traditional public schools need to learn from what the other school options are doing. But he also said the reality is the state’s traditional public schools will continue to educate the vast majority of students – including his own children.

“You’re not going to repeal the charter-school expansion,” Allison said. “You’re not going to repeal the Opportunity Scholarship program.

“They’re here, and more and more families are going through the process. Now the system needs to engage parents and ask why they left and make accommodations and adjustments.”

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

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