On Tuesday, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction released the average daily membership for the first month of the 2020-21 school year. The data represent the first of 10 student enrollment reports published by our state education agency throughout the school year.

Compared to the same period last year, the first-month public school ADM declined by 4.1%, or 62,643 students. This is somewhat misleading because it does not differentiate between districts, charters, and specialty schools. District enrollment dropped by more than 71,000 students (-5.0%) year-over-year, while charter schools added nearly 8,500 students (+7.3%). ISD, regional, alternative, and laboratory schools lost 32 students (-2.2%).

These figures should be interpreted with caution. The first-month ADM figures are preliminary and subject to revision. COVID-19 school reopening plans and the always-troublesome PowerSchool student information system introduced additional challenges to this year’s student accounting process. Moreover, enrollment differences between the first month and subsequent months can number in the thousands, depending on the number of families who choose to enroll, transfer, or withdraw from public schools during the initial weeks of school. Finally, ADM counts for a handful of district and charter schools are not available.

More important, district losses and charter gains have reflected recent enrollment trajectories. Starting in 2015, district enrollment began to decline slightly. Enrollment dropped by around 2% over the past five years. Alternatively, charter schools have enjoyed sizable increases in the number of students enrolled and the number of schools that enroll them. Charter enrollment surged by 69% since 2015, and the state added 52 new charter schools during that period. In sum, charter growth is consistent with recent trends. District declines far exceed them.

How many, who, and why?

It was not a question of if public school enrollment would fall. The question was how much? School reopening plans, particularly those that mandated full-time remote learning for all children in the district or school, imposed hardships on working families that prompted many to choose from the limited alternatives available. In August, I estimated homeschool enrollment would increase by at least 13,000 students this year. Private school enrollment figures won’t be available until the end of the fiscal year, but anecdotal evidence suggests most private schools, specifically those in urban and suburban communities that opted for in-person instruction, realized enrollment gains.

Nationally, initial enrollment levels for the current school year remain a mystery. The collection and dissemination of enrollment data are not uniform across states, so reporters and researchers have tried to compile the data on their own. NPR recently noted, “Comprehensive national data aren’t available yet, but reporting by NPR and our member stations, along with media reports from around the country, shows enrollment declines in dozens of school districts across 20 states.” They include districts in Utah, Virginia, Washington, Florida, and Texas.

One of those media reports referenced by NPR came from Ann Doss Helms of WFAE, who initially reported that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) was 5,000 students below projections. Last week, she said the district “lost even more students this year than the district had previously reported.” An annual student diversity report published by CMS revealed that the drop was closer to 7,000 students, a 4.6% decrease.

At this point, we know little about the characteristics of families that withdrew their children from North Carolina school districts. The Charlotte Ledger noted the largest enrollment losses occurred in affluent areas of Mecklenburg County; that is, in the county’s “more affluent southern ‘wedge.’”

But it’s not just affluent parents who are opting out. According to the Greensboro News & Record, “Schools where a quarter or less of students are from low-income families saw, on average, a 24% decline in kindergarten enrollment. Schools where more than three-quarters of the students are from low-income families saw, on average, a 21% decline. Those schools in the middle, on average, saw declines in the teens.” As more data become available, we’ll be able to conduct similar analyses of district-level enrollment trends.

Public schools held harmless

This year, school districts will be insulated from the fiscal implications of enrollment declines, thanks to the passage of the Coronavirus Relief Act 3.0 last month. The General Assembly included a provision in the relief act that held district and charter school budgets harmless in the event their enrollment decreased.

Districts and charters receive funding based on the number of students they enroll. (Kinda. North Carolina has a state funding system resembling a Rube Goldberg machine in efficiency and spectacle.) So, public school advocacy organizations and state education leaders lobbied lawmakers to ensure districts would not be penalized for families who leave due to dissatisfaction with school reopening plans. Republican leaders in the General Assembly included the hold-harmless provision in the bill and encountered almost no Democratic opposition as a result.

The provision only holds state funds harmless, which is significant because state dollars constitute around two-thirds of the total operating funds that public schools receive. It also expires at the end of the current school year, so public school budgets may be forced to bear the brunt of permanent enrollment declines next year. Much depends on the political composition of the General Assembly and the state’s revenue outlook in 2021. We’ll know more about both in the coming weeks.