Public school systems in the Tar Heel State are experiencing the highest declines in student enrollment in decades.

Since the pandemic arrived in North Carolina last March, student enrollment in public schools has declined 4.4%, or nearly 63,000 students. For context, that number is nearly the size of North Carolina’s third-largest school district, Guilford County’s.

According to data from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, the state’s largest school districts aside from Wake County — which saw a 2.6% drop in enrollment — saw even worse declines: 5.5% for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, 4.1% for Guilford County Schools, and 6% in Forsyth County Schools.

The numbers are so bad that Wake County is now predicting a decline in overall student enrollment over the next decade, from the current 158,883 students to 157,624 by 2030. The decline is partly driven by dropping birth rates, although the trend line of parents flocking to alternatives is a key factor, as well.

As part of a $1 billion COVID-19 relief bill passed in September, state lawmakers included a hold-harmless provision that protects school districts from coronavirus-related revenue decreases. As a result, school districts have been spared the need to deal with the financial consequences of enrollment drops.

But as John Locke Foundation scholar Dr. Terry Stoops points out, districts will eventually face the task of making challenging budget decisions.

“School districts with declining student populations have not taken adequate steps to decrease spending on fixed costs like school buildings and variable costs like personnel,” said Stoops. “To prepare for an uncertain fiscal future, school boards should craft budgets today based on their worst-case enrollment and revenue scenarios.”

Enrollment declines were on the rise even before the pandemic. For example, Wake County has experience a gradual decline in public school enrollment over the past decade, from a high of 83.2% of students for the 2011-12 school year to 77.6% in 2019-20. Charter schools and home schools have absorbed the majority of these students, rising from a combined 7.6% of students in 2011-12 to 13.2% in 2019-20.

Since 2010, North Carolina parents have had access to more educational options due to the lifting of the cap on charter schools, plus the creation of three school-choice scholarships and grants for low-income children and those with special needs to attend private schools.

The pandemic appears to have only accelerated that migration to alternative options. Today, 14,720 students are on the Opportunity Scholarship Program, a 16% increase from last year. A high enough volume of parents sought to register their home schools over the summer that the surge in traffic shut down the state website.

David Bass is a freelance writer for Carolina Journal.