Education

Wake schools lower enrollment growth projections

First-grade teacher Morgan Perry gets her class ready to head to lunch at Cardinal Charter Academy in Cary. Increasing competition from charter schools and home schools is causing the Wake County school system to scale back the number of new students it expects to receive during the next decade.
First-grade teacher Morgan Perry gets her class ready to head to lunch at Cardinal Charter Academy in Cary. Increasing competition from charter schools and home schools is causing the Wake County school system to scale back the number of new students it expects to receive during the next decade. ehyman@newsobserver.com

Increasing competition from charter schools and home schools is causing the Wake County school system to scale back the number of new students it expects to receive during the next decade.

School and county planners now forecast North Carolina’s largest school system will grow by 2,000 students a year for the next few years – instead of by more than 3,000 children annually, as was projected two years ago.

Planners said Tuesday that those 2013 projections didn’t fully take into account the rapid enrollment growth at charter schools, which draw an estimated 1,000 new students away from the school system each year.

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 students in Wake would never face reassignment to new schools, as some traditional public school students might.

In 2011, the General Assembly lifted a cap that had limited the number of charter schools statewide to 100. State lawmakers also have eased restrictions on the ability of charter schools to add more students.

“Charter schools, the cap has been lifted,” Michelle Venditto, Wake County’s director of budget and management services, told the school board. “There are other options for families, so really that’s opening up the market share.”

There are 19 charter schools open in Wake County this year, with four more scheduled to open in 2016. In addition, students can attend any charter school, so a number of Wake students go to schools in other Triangle communities.

Construction may slow

The new enrollment projections could affect the size of the next school construction program for which the school board will request funding in 2016. The district is now projected to add 13,000 students by 2020 to reach 170,153 students, compared with the previous projection of 181,552 students that year.

There are other options for families, so really that’s opening up the market share.

Michelle Venditto, Wake County budget director

School leaders noted that nearly 25,000 students still attend classes in temporary classrooms such as trailers. With 157,180 students, Wake is the largest school system in the state and the 16th-largest in the nation.

“The growth is still rising,” Superintendent Jim Merrill said. “The pressure is not as great. But there are still a tremendous number of seats that are needed.”

Slower growth would also reduce the amount of money the school district would get to operate schools.

When the enrollment projections were done in 2013, the school system was consistently educating 83 percent of the students in Wake County. But that figure dropped to 81.1 percent last school year when growth in charter schools, private schools and home schools outpaced the district’s growth by nearly 2-to-1.

Last year, more than 36,000 Wake students attended private schools, home schools and charter schools.

The school district has added 3,880 students during the past two years, 2,000 students fewer than projected. Charter schools have played a role in the slowing of growth.

In the past three years, Wake’s charter-school enrollment has increased 54 percent to reach 9,577 students this school year. Figures presented Tuesday show that the 2,022-student growth in Wake charter school students last year, largely fueled by the opening of four new schools, was bigger than the district’s growth of 1,884 students.

School board member Bill Fletcher said the district needs to have enough schools in case students return from charter schools that close.

“As the public school system, we will continue to have some obligations that these other institutions do not,” Fletcher said.

Wake has also seen home-school enrollment increase by 2,800 students over the prior three years, reaching 10,407 children. Merrill said he wants to look at recruiting the home-schoolers to enroll in the district.

“That is a slice I do want to look at,” Merrill said.

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

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