NC K-12 traditional public school enrollment still lagging after pandemic
Public Charter School enrollment has increased nearly 20%
Enrollment in North Carolina's traditional public schools continues to lag following the COVID-19 pandemic.
The first look at this school year’s data released by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) shows the first month’s average daily membership (ADM) for traditional public school districts has only inched up around 1 percent whereas charter school growth is up over six percent.
Charter schools in North Carolina are also public schools.
Reporting by EducationNC expands on that number.
In the chart below, you can see the ADM numbers for traditional and charter school students in 2019 (pre-pandemic), 2020 (in the peak of the pandemic), 2021 (last year) and now. Traditional schools gained 1.1% from last year to this year but are still down 3.2% overall from before COVID-19. Charter schools gained 6.4% over last year and are up 19.2% from before the pandemic.
ADM, in short, is the total number of school days a student is listed on the current roll of a class regardless of any absences. ADM is broken out and reported on a monthly basis on the NCPDI website. It’s important to understand this number fluctuates and the first month is typically lower than the following months in a school year.
Enrollment numbers have ramifications for district funding such as the number of teachers the state will fund. Reduced class size can result in staffing cuts.
Lindalyn Kakadelis, Executive Director of the N.C. Coalition for Charter Schools, issued a statement on the explosive growth of charter schools.
"Public charter schools complement, rather than compete with, district schools. We’re all part of the public school family,” Kakadelis said. "That charter schools saw yet another sizable increase in enrollment this year hammers home the fact that parents both want and deserve options in public schooling.”
Kakadelis continued, “The reality is children have a better chance of reaching their full potential in a school environment that best suits their unique gifts. Sometimes that’s a district school, and sometimes that’s a public charter school."
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Charter schools are not the only educational option to see explosive expansion during and after the pandemic.
North Carolina’s homeschooling population also boomed per data from the Department of Nonpublic Instruction (DNPE).
In 2019-20, there were 149,173 homeschooled students. That number rose 20.6 percent to 179,900 in 2020-21. To put that in perspective, if homeschoolers were their own district, it would have surpassed the pre-pandemic enrollment of Wake County, the state’s largest district.
Between the 2019-20 and the 2020-21 school years, the number of registered homeschools jumped almost 104 percent. DNPE recorded 19,294 new homeschools in 2020-21. In the previous school year, 9,481 new homeschools were established.
The number of homeschools dropped in 2021-22 after DNPE cleaned up some of the data for those registrations.
Private schools in the state also increased their numbers during and after the pandemic year.
Last school year, 115,311 students were enrolled in 828 private schools. In 2020-21, 783 schools enrolled a total of 107,341 students. The increase between those years was 7.24 percent.
The student enrollment increase between 2021-22 and the pre-pandemic year of 2019-20 was 10.92 percent.
The data shows school closures undoubtedly impacted traditional public school enrollment.
The cost of those closures in terms of student achievement is being recognized as catastrophic, especially for lower-income, minority, and special needs students.
The N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s Office of Learning Recovery (OLR) has been diving into learning loss in the state.
Earlier this year in June, OLR published a report showing North Carolina K-12 student academic achievement had fallen behind by between two and 15 months across various subjects during the time students were forced out of classrooms and into “remote learning.”
OLR’s data compares to national results of math and readings scores for fourth and eighth graders released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP.
National average mathematics scores for fourth graders fell five points since 2019 (from 241 to 236). Eighth graders dropped eight points (from 282 to 274).
The national average fourth-grade math score was the lowest in almost 20 years. The eight-point fall represents the biggest drop in the history of the assessment.
National average scores in Reading for both grades fell three points (from 220 to 217 in fourth grade and from 263 to 260 in eighth grade). The last time NAEP reading scores were this low for both grade levels was during the 1990s.
The prolongment of school closures by North Carolina’s Democratic Governor Roy Cooper likely added to the gains by other schooling alternatives.
On Mar. 14, 2020, Cooper used an executive order to close all schools in the state to in-person instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We do not have the luxury of a wait-and-see approach. These are hard decisions but they are necessary so we can learn more about the virus,” Governor Cooper said at the time of his order. “We do not want any regrets in the rearview mirror, and I am guided by one objective – doing what we must to keep people from getting sick and to make sure that those who do can get excellent care."
Schools in the state remained closed for in-person instruction for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year.
While some students were allowed back in school buildings on a rotating cohort basis in the fall of 2020, schools would not fully reopen until after Mar. 10 of 2021.
Legislators passed a bill with some bipartisan support to reopen schools, however, Cooper vetoed it.
A nearly identical bill was then passed which added a provision protecting Cooper’s power to close schools again if he needed to. The governor would sign the second bill which was announced in a joint press conference in Raleigh attended by House Speaker Tim Moore, Senate Leader Phil Berger, and N.C. State Superintendent Catherine Truitt.
While children were returning to in-person instruction, they did so with masks on for almost another full year.
Cooper did not give an official nod to ending the masking of school children until Feb. 17, 2022. By that time, Cooper’s nod was almost irrelevant as 60 of the state’s 115 districts had already moved to mask optional.