Last week the News & Observer reported that Wake County Public Schools (WCPSS) grew by a mere 42 students. “Surprised” is the best way I can describe the reaction I have gleaned from readers, most of whom have heard nothing but a steady stream of messages about the thousands of people who move to Wake County each year. In December, the US Census Bureau estimated North Carolina gained about 113,000 new residents, about 87,000 of new residents were a result of net in-migration from other states.
WCPSS officials say slowing population growth, a lower birth rate and expanded school choice options help explain the figures. The real question is does figure represent the start of a new trend in less demand for classrooms and schools in general?
Figures don’t lie. Last year, WCPSS saw an increase of only 880 students, the smallest increase in 34 years. District planners had predicted 2,200 new students for WCPSS and approximately 1,900 more this year. Regrettably, WCPSS planners have had a history of over-estimating WCPSS enrollment. See here and here.
Newspapers reported that enrollment in public charter schools in Wake County increased 1,532 students. When you add the two groups together (e.g. traditional public and public charter) 1,574 new students enrolled in public schools in Wake County in 2017-18, 42 of these students chose to enroll in WCPSS. On a percentage basis, 2.6 percent of new students chose traditional public schools; while 97.4 percent of new public school students chose to enroll in public charter schools in Wake County.
What does it all mean? Is it the start of a new trend and lessening demand for more classrooms and schools?
We do know the numbers reflect the growing preference of parents for school choice options. Although enrollment numbers for private, online or homeschooling are not yet available, recent trendlines confirm these preferences. Enrollment in Wake County home schools is up 48 percent since 2009-10. Likewise, enrollment in Wake County private school is up 14 percent over the same time.
That only 42 new students enrolled last year in the largest school district in North Carolina is news worthy. Is slowing enrollment bad for WCPSS? If you read the press coverage, the answer seems to be yes. Most stories on the topic talk about possible reductions in funding, since most funding is based on enrollment estimates. In school choice is blamed for siphoning students and dollars from the public schools. I’m always surprised how the enrollment dips are always viewed negatively. Fewer students can help alleviate overcrowding and boost per pupil funding. Moreover, school choice represents the opportunity for parents to choose a school that best fits the individual needs of their son or daughter.
Conspicuously absent from most of this discussion on enrollment and enrollment changes, is an obvious question: What is the optimum size for a school district? Unfortunately, the research doesn’t provide a clear answer. Large districts may gain economies of scale which may hold down costs, while some research suggests districts around 10,000-15,000 are the sweet spot for both cost and student achievement. WCPSS officials have operated on the assumption that bigger is better. It’s an assertion without substantiation. And parents and taxpayers deserve an answer.
Last November Wake County voters approved a $548 million bond for school building and renovations. The bond won approval. However, it’s more than a little interesting that there were no stories to be found about slowing enrollment in WCPSS before the election.
Enrollment figures tell a story, but not the whole story. They tell you numbers are down but that school choice has allowed parents to opt for better educational opportunities. Numbers are based on assumptions like bigger is better but they fail to substantiate why it must be so.
It’s time to expand the conversation.