NC Population Estimates Tell Different Stories for NC LEAs
Over the last few years there have been many comments about overcrowded K-12 classrooms and understaffed schools. Often observers tie these problems to North Carolina’s growing population in ways that suggest the need for more funding for public schools. From 2004-05 to 2013-14, North Carolina’s K-12 student population increased 7.2 percent, more than 97,000 students. Will those trends continue into the future?
Source: North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, Growth Analysis North Carolina, 2013
Not if recent estimates from the Department of Public Instruction are correct. (See chart above.) Over the next decade, the total number of K-12 students in North Carolina will actually decline by almost 4,400 students, even when considering a significant increase in students the last two years. A review of population estimates suggests that not only does the overall population growth stop, but North Carolina’s urban and rural population trends appear to be going in two different directions. According to the data only 32 of North Carolina’s 100 counties are expected to have higher populations in 2023-24 than in 2013-14.
Such estimates have implications. First, the numbers make us realize that LEAs – like the students they seek to educate – are different. Most of the counties with declining enrollments are in rural areas, while LEAs with the greatest growth are primarily urban or suburban locations. Because education funding is tied largely to enrollment, budgets in many of the rural school districts will decline.
Second, growth patterns indicate that education dollars will continue to be funneled largely away from rural counties to the state’s larger urban areas. Barring changes, school funding formulas will work to accelerate the disparities.
Third, if uniform populations argue for similar funding and spending formulas, isn’t the converse true? Don’t differences in school populations, staffing and resources argue for different rules and greater flexibility in how LEAs spend school dollars?
North Carolina’s strong population growth is often mentioned as a reason why we must increase school funding. But North Carolina’s era of continuous population growth appears to be over. In the next decade, the number of K-12 public school students is estimated to decline by more than 4,000 students. While some counties will continue to grow, approximately two-thirds of all North Carolina counties will decline in population over the next decade. An analysis of the demographic changes shows North Carolina is becoming a state with two types of LEAs: those that are growing and those that are in population decline. Wise public policy requires that we acknowledge differences, stop forcing districts into formulas that don’t serve them well, and grant LEAs greater flexibility to educate their students.
 Accessible at: http://www.schoolclearinghouse.org/otherinf/ADMFund/ADMGrowthAnalysisNC2013.pdf