RALEIGH, NC—North Carolina’s largest school district continues to feel the impact of pandemic-related reductions in its student population, and those impacts will be felt for at around a decade, according to a report presented to the Wake County Board of Education on Wednesday, Feb. 9.

Despite the fact that Wake County’s population is growing by 62 people per day, the school system shrunk by about 3,000 students during the pandemic, the report from Carolina Demography revealed.

Where did those students go? To school choice alternatives. Charter school enrollments in Wake County grew by 8.9%, home schools by 20.4%, and private schools by 1.5%.

“Many families have become more involved in the day-to-day education of their children during the COVID-19 pandemic, which may change their expectations of public education,” wrote the authors of the report. “These changing expectations may lead families to choose nonpublic instruction in the future unless public instruction adapts to these new expectations of greater flexibility and individualized instruction.”

“Wake County school officials can reverse the district’s steady decline in market share in two simple steps: determine why families choose to leave the district and address identified shortcomings,” said Dr. Terry Stoops, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation. “Instead, they seek to limit competition from public and nonpublic schools. It is the predictable response from a former monopoly losing its hold on a market.”

The report additionally found:

  • “Rapid expansion of charter schools: Between the 2013-14 and 2020-21 school years, Wake charter school enrollments more than doubled, rising from 6,733 to 14,490, an increase of 115%. Charter school market share rose from 3.6% to 7.0% over this time.”
  • “Growth of home schools: Between 2013-14 and 2020-21, home school enrollments in Wake County grew from 9,559 to 16,347, an increase of 71%. Home school market share rose from 5.1% to 7.9% over this time.”
  • “Steady growth in private school enrollments: Between 2013-14 and 2020-21, private school enrollments rose from 16,249 to 19,385, an increase of 3,136 or 19.3%. With this growth, private schools regained market share from their post-Great Recession low of 8.7% in 2013-14. As of 2020-21, they were at 9.3%.”

Statewide, public school enrollments plummeted by 63,000 students in the 2020-2021 school year. That figure rebounded by 12,571 enrollments for the 2021-2022 school year, an improvement that still leaves districts well short of pre-pandemic levels.