Politics & Government

Popularity of charter schools is causing this NC school district to lose students

Durham Public Schools have shrunk by more than 1,000 students over the past four years, at the same time enrollment from Durham families in charter schools has gone up by more than 1,700 children.

Durham Public Schools have gone from having about 33,000 students in 2014 to about 32,000 students this school year, with around half of that drop in enrollment in the past year alone. In contrast, charter school enrollment by Durham students has more than doubled in the past decade and increased by around a third since 2014.

The situation in Durham mirrors statewide trends where traditional public school enrollment is dropping as charter school attendance grows. Locally, school districts such as Wake and Johnston counties are still growing but at slower rates because of students opting for education alternatives such as charter schools.

Critics say charter schools, which are taxpayer funded schools that are exempt from some rules that traditional public schools must follow such as providing bus service and meals, need to be curbed. Those critics may have more success this year now that Republicans have lost veto-proof majorities in the state legislature.

“We’re working really hard to make Durham Public Schools the best first option for every family in our community,” said Natalie Beyer, a Durham school board member. “At the same time the increase of charter schools, vouchers and other privatization initiatives make that work even harder and hurt existing students in our schools.”

But school-choice supporters say what’s happened in North Carolina is that parents are being put in the driver’s seat to determine how best to educate their children. Since 2011, the Republican-led General Assembly has made multiple changes to education policy, including lifting the cap on the number of charter schools and providing money to help families attend private K-12 schools.

“The increase in enrollment in charter schools indicates people are happy with the way they operate.” said Terry Stoops, vice president of research for the John Locke Foundation, a think tank in Raleigh. “Parents are sending their children to them in record numbers.”

On Wednesday, the State Board of Education will receive a report showing that charter school enrollment is up 8 percent this year to 109,389 students in 184 charter schools. That growth had an impact on several Triangle school districts.

In Johnston County, school officials say the district lost 691 students to charter schools this year.

The number of Durham students attending charter schools exceeded the district’s projections, increasing by 451 children this year to 6,957 students.

The number of Wake County students attending charter schools increased by more than 1,500 children this year. At the same time, the Wake County school system’s enrollment’s grew by only 42 students, the smallest total in more than 30 years.

Wake is still North Carolina’s largest school district, with 160,471 students. But with enrollment coming in well below projections, the Wake school board will discuss the situation on Tuesday.

The way school districts calculate their annual enrollment varies. For instance, Wake uses the average enrollment in the second month of school while Durham uses the number of students on the 20th day of classes.

Based on Wake’s approach, enrollment increased this year by 387 students in Johnston County, 59 in Chatham County and 50 in Chapel Hill-Carrboro. But that yardstick has enrollment dropping by 39 students in Orange County and by 643 in Durham Public Schools to 32,356 pupils.

Based on 20th day enrollment, Durham’s enrollment has fallen from a high of 33,750 students in 2014 to 32,520 this year.

“In each of the past four years, student enrollment in traditional K-12 public schools declined both statewide and in Durham County,” Chip Sudderth, a Durham Public Schools spokesman, said in a statement. “Declining enrollment in traditional public schools is a local, state and national issue resulting from numerous factors such as charter and home school growth and slowing population growth.

“DPS is responding with our aggressive Strategic Plan that prioritizes increasing academic achievement, welcoming and serving the whole child in a safe and supportive school environment, retaining and recruiting the best teachers and staff, actively engaging our community, and fiscal and operational efficiency.”

But Beyer, the Durham school board member, said the district’s efforts are being hampered by the loss of funding from all the families who are opting for charter schools. Durham Public Schools is handing $24.1 million to charter schools this year.

“Families and students need to understand that individual choices impact the ability to serve all students with excellence and equity,” she said.

Beyer, who is also a leader in Public Schools First NC, a statewide advocacy group, said she’s hopeful state lawmakers will make changes this year to charter school policy. Beyer said she’d like to at least have the conversation of charter schools being under school district control instead of as they now are operating independently.

Stoops of the Locke Foundation says he expects Democratic state lawmakers to propose several changes this year to regulate charter schools. But Stoops said it’s sad that school districts would want to find ways to weaken or eliminate charter schools instead of trying to compete with them.

“Charter schools were designed to foster competition with districts,” said Stoops, whose wife leads a new charter school scheduled to open this year in Wake County. “Instead of rising to that competition, districts would rather try to find ways to undermine charters with regulations.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.