Facing Competition, N.C. Public School Advocates Target Choice

Facing Competition, N.C. Public School Advocates Target Choice
Christine T. Nguyen/The Herald-Sun via AP

North Carolina teachers attracted national attention last May when they joined West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Colorado as a teacher walkout state. Their one-day, union-inspired protest at the North Carolina State Capitol was surprising for a right-to-work state that had recently granted teachers a 6.5 percent average salary increase, their fifth raise in a row. The protest and its aftermath have secured the state’s battleground status, not just in presidential politics, but in education politics as well.

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This year, one of the main goals of protesters will be to impede the expansion of popular school choice programs that have empowered parents but stifled district school enrollment growth and the funding that comes with it. Data show that an unprecedented number of North Carolina parents are voting with their feet.
The Raleigh News & Observer recently reported that Wake County Schools, the largest school district in North Carolina and 16th largest in the nation, had expected as many as 1,900 new students to enroll this school year. For a district that had enjoyed years of robust enrollment growth, it was a reasonable assumption.
When the doors opened last fall, a quite different reality emerged: the net increase was a mere 42 students.
A spokesperson for Wake County Schools blamed the drop on declining birth rates and aging population. Indeed, demographers expect the so-called “baby bust” to lead to a decline in public school enrollment nationwide. The latest vital statistics report from the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows a steady decline in birth rates. According to their November 2018 report, the nation’s general fertility rate declined steadily from 2007 to 2013 and remains at record lows. North Carolina’s general fertility rate in 2017 was 59.6 births per 1,000 females or slightly lower than the national average. It was one among 41 states that had a declining fertility rate from 2016 to 2017. Naturally, school enrollment will reflect these trends.
Yet, declining fertility rates alone cannot explain Wake County’s spectacular overestimation. The 2018 National Movers Study indicates North Carolina has a relatively high percentage of inbound migration. Wake and the surrounding counties that constitute the Triangle region are the primary beneficiaries of that migration. The region remains a popular destination for those who wish to relocate to an area with a strong economy, outstanding quality of life, and college basketball superiority.
Rather, school districts in North Carolina are witnessing “district defections,” decisions by parents to remove their child from a district school and pursue charter, home, and private school options. Last school year, nearly 22 percent of school-aged children in Wake County attended a school of choice, and there are indications the district’s market share will continue to drop. Preliminary enrollment figures from the current school year indicate charter schools in Wake County added over 1,500 students this year. When homeschool enrollment estimates are released later this year, I suspect it will show an increase as well.

Once-growing urban school districts across the state are encountering similar challenges. In October, the Charlotte Observer reported that, despite initial reports of a 360-student gain, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools actually had a small enrollment decline this year. A recent report in the Herald Sun pointed out that Durham County Schools enroll 1,000 fewer students than they did four years ago. 
Their loss is homeschool and charter schools’ gain. The N.C. Division of Non-Public Education estimates that Wake County had a homeschool enrollment increase of over 5,000 students since 2012. Durham and Mecklenburg counties added approximately 1,000 and 3,900 homeschoolers, respectively, during the same period. Likewise, according to N.C. Department of Public Instruction data, charter school membership in Wake County increased by nearly 6,500 students between 2012 and 2018, second only to Mecklenburg County’s 10,000-student gain. Durham County had a nearly 3,000-student increase in charter school enrollment. 
Teacher unions and public school advocacy organizations in North Carolina are ready to take drastic measures, and their most recent idea seeks nothing less than a hostile takeover of charter schools. Natalie Beyer, a Durham County school board member and board member of Public Schools First NC, told a reporter she would “like to at least have the conversation of charter schools being under school district control instead of as they now are operating independently.” If you can’t beat them, try to destroy them. 
As part of this effort, public school advocacy organizations and their union supporters will likely initiate an aggressive campaign to weaken their competition through the media, legislature, and the courts. When the N.C. General Assembly reconvenes later this month, lawmakers in the Democratic minority will propose measures toenlarge government oversight of charters and any school that receives funding from one of North Carolina’s three private-school choice programs. In addition, anti-choice interests will look to the courts to intervene, perhaps by using the state’s longstanding adequacy lawsuit as the basis for legal action. 
By advancing measures designed to preserve their institutional resources and power at the expense of parents and the options they are choosing, school districts and their supporters have turned their backs on families. If anyone has a right to protest, it’s the families who cannot access educational options or those who face the prospect of having their opportunities taken away.

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