I would feel better about the future if I knew what was going to happen.


The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) just published the 42nd edition of Projections of Education Statistics.  This year’s report includes data on public school enrollment, teachers, graduates, and expenditures since 1999 and projections to 2023.

Between 2006 and 2011, North Carolina had one of the largest percentage increases in student enrollment. Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, Nebraska, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming were the only states that outpaced North Carolina’s 4.4 percent growth rate.  Obviously, enrollment growth in North Carolina eclipsed all states in the Southeast.

The NCES projects that North Carolina will increase student enrollment by 10.9 percent between 2011 and 2023.  Only 11 states had higher projected enrollment growth.  In terms of a numerical change, a nearly 11 percent increase would add almost 157,000 students to our schools and give North Carolina the eighth largest public school enrollment in the nation.

The NCES data only provides statewide projections, but the reality is that enrollment growth is not evenly distributed across regions. According to data for the NC Department of Public Instruction, there continues to be remarkable enrollment growth in urban and suburban districts and declining enrollment in many rural ones.  For example, between 2006 and 2016, enrollment dropped in nearly half of North Carolina school districts.  Districts in the rural northeast were hit particularly hard, while our urban/suburban corridors enjoyed double-digit growth.  Some of these declines reflect migration to charter schools, private schools, and home schools, but others were simply the result of population loss.

I believe that these enrollment trends will further the political divide between rural and urban areas.  (Others are much more optimistic, and I sincerely hope they are right.)  Public education funds are allocated on the basis of student enrollment, among other factors.  Barring a radical change in the state education funding system, rural districts will continue to receive fewer taxpayer dollars, a worrisome prospect for communities whose primary employer is the school district.

To complicate matters, the battle for scarce public resources will not be limited to the public education system.  Last week, Dr. Matthew Ladner, senior advisor for policy and research at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, made a compelling case that the increase in student population, coupled with the retirement of baby boomers, will place unprecedented demands on state and federal budgets.  As Ladner pointed out, “The pressures on the budget are going to be sort of a health care vs. education tension.  Quite frankly, you’re going to have different funding priorities between different generations of North Carolinians.”  The report is well worth a read, particularly for policymakers who have the foresight to begin preparing for this inevitable clash of generations.

Growth is good but difficult.  Lawmakers and others who will be responsible for dealing with North Carolina’s expected population growth will need to begin planning for it now.  Reforms to entitlement programs, the expansion of school choice and alternative delivery models, addressing unfunded liabilities, and maintaining a favorable tax and regulatory climate are good places to start.