Politics & Government

‘Simply fewer children’ — Wake County schools see an end to decades of student growth

Three decades of continuous growth in the Wake County school system will be coming to an end, planners say, and it will lead to hard discussions about the future of the district.

Wake schools grew by only 42 students this school year — not the 1,898 newcomers projected. School and county planners said Tuesday that this year’s enrollment slowdown is part of a new trend that will lead to the district only growing by 3,800 students over the next decade — 20,000 students fewer than they projected a year ago.

The new projections have Wake’s enrollment shrinking starting in 2025. The last time Wake’s enrollment shrank was in 1982.

“It is now clear to the county, the school system and to our municipal planners that we are looking at a new trend,” said Superintendent Cathy Moore. “This is going to require a review of all of our assumptions.”

The new projections come after Wake has tripled its enrollment since the 1980s, reaching 160,471 students this school year to make it the largest district in North Carolina.

The past three decades of rapid growth, where Wake used to add as many as 7,500 students a year, produced several school construction bond issues on the ballot, fights over student reassignment and calls for more money to educate all the students.

School leaders pointed to the potential benefits from growth slowing down. For instance, Lloyd Gardner, the district’s chief of staff and strategic planning, said that Wake may be able to do more now to relieve crowding at older schools and get caught up on deferred maintenance needs.

“We have been chasing growth for a very long time, as long as I think all of us have been on the board,” added school board chairman Jim Martin. “This may give us an opportunity to start doing some of that systemic work that we know needs to be done but have not been able to do because of growth.”

School officials attribute the slowdown to fewer children being born in Wake, to the county’s population aging and to competition from charter schools, home schools and private schools.

Wake isn’t alone both statewide and nationally in seeing enrollment growth slow down.

Experts have begun talking about a national baby bust, The Charlotte Observer previously reported. The nonprofit, education-focused Hechinger Report said in November that some projections indicate total public school enrollment could be down by 8.5 percent in the next decade.

In recent years, a majority of N.C. school districts have seen enrollment decline or flatten as charter schools grow, The Charlotte Observer reported.

The new projections come after Wake County voters approved a $548 million school construction bond referendum in November. Amid complaints from critics that the bond wasn’t needed, school administrators emphasized Tuesday that two-thirds of the money will go toward renovations and that it also will pay for new schools in high-growth areas.

School officials also stressed Tuesday that many schools are still overcrowded and will need enrollment caps this fall that restrict which students can attend. School officials also pointed to how they’re having to deal with the impact of smaller K-3 class sizes required by state lawmakers.

“These needs are not tied to enrollment growth,” Gardner said.

But school officials also acknowledged Tuesday that they will have to look at changes in a plan that calls for spending $2 billion on school construction over the next seven years. School board members and county commissioners had planned to ask voters to approve another school bond referendum in 2020.

This year’s growth of only 42 students in district schools comes as charter schools added more than 1,500 new Wake students this year. There’s been a sharp increase in the number of Wake County students attending charter schools and home schools and, to a lesser degree, in private schools in recent years.

The percentage of Wake County students attending district schools has shrunk from 83.3 percent in 2008 to 78.8 percent last school year. But school leaders said it would be wrong to blame the slowdown primarily on school choice.

“There are simply fewer children, period,” Moore said. “School choice is having an effect on our enrollment numbers. But if we focus solely on market share we are not focusing on other important factors.”

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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.