Reports: Public school enrollment down 10% in last 15 years in North Carolina

(The Center Square) – Two new reports on homeschooled and private school students in North Carolina are offering snapshots into the long-term trend of parents seeking alternatives to traditional…

(The Center Square) – Two new reports on homeschooled and private school students in North Carolina are offering snapshots into the long-term trend of parents seeking alternatives to traditional public schools.

Enrollment in both home and private schools increased significantly during the pandemic, but while private schools have continued to gain students, fewer parents are opting to homeschool than in recent years.

Overall, enrollment trends show about 10% of students have shifted from traditional public schools to alternative options over the last 15 years, cutting public school enrollment from about 87% of all students in 2008 to 77% in 2023. The state has a total of about 1.8 million students with just under 1.4 million enrolled in traditional public schools.

A North Carolina Statistical Summary for Private Schools for the 2022-23 school year released this week shows a total of 126,768 students attended private schools, with 39,871 at independent schools and 86,897 in religious schools.

The report counted a total of 884 private schools – 319 independent, 565 religious – spread across all but nine counties, with the most in Mecklenburg (103), Wake (95), Durham (42) Guilford (38) and Buncombe (37).

The figures mark a significant increase over the 2021-22 school year, with 11,457 more students and 56 more schools. In 2019-20, when Gov. Roy Cooper shuttered public schools amid the pandemic, there were 103,959 private school students in 751 schools. In the 2007-08 school year, the numbers were 97,656 students in 683 schools.

While private school enrollment has fluctuated some since 1991, the general trend has been an increase in both metrics, with steady growth since lawmakers approved Opportunity Scholarships to provide public money for low-income families so students could attend private schools in 2013.

A similar statistical summary for North Carolina homeschooled students for the 2022-23 school year estimated 94,154 schools serving 152,717 students. The numbers represent 709 fewer schools but 3,544 more students than during the 2019-20 school year that started before the pandemic.

Home school enrollment jumped by more than 30,000 students for the 2020-21 school year to a peak of 179,900, before retreating to 160,528 last school year. In 2007-08, there were 71,566 students enrolled in 38,367 home schools, while in 1996-97 the numbers were 15,785 students in 9,381 schools, according to state data.

The long-term trend away from public schools was accelerated by the pandemic, with parents motivated to find alternatives over frustrations with school closures, government health mandates, and numerous other issues.

Gallop poll released in July found an all-time low of 26% of Americans have a “great deal/fair amount of confidence” in public schools.

Republicans in the General Assembly responded in the current session with legislation to expand school choice options, and to give parents more of a say in the education system.

A Parents’ Bill of Rights is currently awaiting a veto override vote after Gov. Roy Cooper rejected the measure on July 5.

House Bill 823, known as Choose Your School, Choose Your Future, would expand the Opportunity Scholarships to all students in the state using a tiered system based on income. House Republicans passed HB823 in May on a mostly party-line vote of 65-45 – with Edgecombe County Rep. Shelly Willingham the lone Democrat in support – and it’s now pending in the Senate rules committee.