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What Wake Enrollment Stats Really Mean

    Publisher's note: This post, by Bob Luebke, was originally published in the Education section of Civitas's online edition.

    Wake County Public Schools are growing at a slower rate than expected, and the reasons for this trend illuminate the growing gap between what the traditional public schools offer and what many parents want for their children.

    Local news reports say that, despite adding about 3,900 students over the last two years, Wake County school enrollment has actually been about 1,000 students less than projected in each of the last two years. Yet new students have been flocking to charter, private and home schools in increasing numbers.

    So what do the changes mean? At the very least, they should prompt us to cast a more skeptical eye on WCPSS enrollment estimates. The fact is that enrollment estimates have been consistently too high for the last couple of years. Because the numbers drive operating costs and influence capital budgets, there are consequences to getting the enrollment estimates wrong. School planners recently reported that North Carolina's largest school system will grow by 2,000 students for the next few years - instead of more than 3,000 children annually, as was projected with earlier estimates.

    While the overall numbers are important, a closer look shows more fundamental changes such as growing public support for school choice. In the past three years, charter school enrollment in Wake County has increased 54 percent. News reports say the number of new students in charter schools (2,022) surpassed the number of new students in the traditional public schools (1,884) last year. (The county opened four new charter schools in that time.)

    In addition, over the past three years, the number of new homeschoolers is up more than 2,800 students. There are now more than 10,400 homeschoolers in Wake County.

    The steady migration toward charter and home school alternatives demonstrates that the public has embraced these educational alternatives. Our statewide polls bear this out. In November, the Civitas monthly poll asked likely North Carolina voters: If you could select any type of school to obtain the best education for your child, what type of school would you select? Sixty-two percent of respondents choose charter, private, magnet, virtual or home school options. Thirty-two percent of respondents chose traditional public schools.

    Lest you think these responses are outliers, in recent years we asked virtually the same question in other polls. The percentages opting for traditional public schools ranged between 32 and 41 percent, while the combined percentages of parents opting for charter, private, home school, virtual or magnet school ranged from 47 percent to 63 percent, with the last three polls producing even higher numbers: 53 percent (March 2013), 59 percent (July 2015) and 63 percent (November 2015).

    The numbers identify a disconnect between the educational options currently available to parents and the options parents want for their children. These options are indicative of an ongoing discussion about the definition of public education in North Carolina and elsewhere. To better understand what's going on, in Part 2 of this series we will take a closer look at the ideas underlying American education, then and now.

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