Last week, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction published the final enrollment numbers for the 2016-17 school year.  Overall, there was a nearly 4,500-student or 0.3 percent year-to-year decrease in district enrollment (average daily membership).  Over the last five school years, North Carolina’s district enrollment has been stagnant. Districts added only 770 students, a trivial 0.1 percent increase, during this period.

Over the last five years, 82 of North Carolina’s 115 districts had a net loss of students.  But many of those districts had losses that represented only a fraction of their enrollment.  Alternatively, since 2013, 34 school districts lost at least 5 percent of their total student population.  The largest enrollment decreases occurred in North Carolina districts in the northeast.  Halifax County led the way with a nearly 25 percent decrease, followed by Bertie (-17 percent), Northampton (-17 percent), Washington (-14 percent), and Weldon City (-12 percent) schools.  Three other districts, Warren, Stokes, and Madison, had enrollment decreases in the double digits.

On a percentage basis, the largest enrollment gains were seen in Pender (9 percent), Tyrrell (8 percent), Asheville City (8 percent), Cabarrus (7 percent), and Chatham schools (7 percent).  North Carolina’s largest districts, Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, were not far behind.

What accounts for these changes?  Structural transformations of state, national, and international economies, which have led to population decline in rural areas, and out-of-state migration to North Carolina’s urban areas are two factors that come to mind.  But a case could be made that parents are also voting with their feet.  The Republican-led General Assembly expanded access to private school vouchers for families with low-income and special needs students.  The home school enrollment estimates suggest that parents are more receptive to home schooling.  But of all the alternatives in the school choice sector, public charter schools play the largest role.

Charter school enrollment grew to 90,163 students last year, an increase of over 9,800 students or 12.2 percent compared to the year before.  The trajectory of the enrollment in charter schools has been astounding.  Charters added nearly 41,200 students to their rolls since 2013, an 84 percent increase in enrollment.  This growth is largely due to timely changes to the charter school law, which produced steady enrollment growth at existing charter schools and a stronger pool of charter applications.

The most obvious and immediate consequence of these enrollment changes is financial.  As state and federal funding formulas use enrollment to determine the distribution of dollars, districts and charter schools that enjoy enrollment growth will receive additional funds.  The opposite is true of contracting districts.  Any changes to the school funding system recommended by the Joint Legislative Task Force on Education Finance Reform should be attentive to their concerns.

These trends also beg questions about the future of school districts in North Carolina.  Should Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools be divided into small districts?  Earlier this year, the N.C. General Assembly set up a joint legislative study committee to examine that issue.  Charlotte-Mecklenburg ended the school year with well over 146,000 students, and Wake had over 158,000.  Both will likely add thousands of students in the coming school year.  If the committee determines that districts of this size do more harm than good, will the state intervene or leave the decision to local governments and school boards?

On the other hand, North Carolina supports a few relatively small districts.  Three districts, Hyde, Tyrrell, and Weldon City, have fewer than 1,000 students each, and 17 had fewer than 2,000 students.  It may be time for these communities to consider ways to share resources or even voluntarily consolidate, although either is easier said than done.

As a proponent of school choice, I am pleased that parents have more options today than ever before.  But I am mindful of the fact that the majority of families will choose to send their children to a district school.  That is why the state should continue to pursue a combination of choice-based and system-based reforms to ensure that all children receive the education that best meets their needs.