Wake County Public Schools was anticipating enrolling 1,900 new students in the 2018-19 school year. Instead, the school district added just 42 students, the smallest single-year growth in the past 30 years.

The Wake County Board of Education met Tuesday, Jan. 8, to discuss what happened and what it means for the school district.

Wake County Superintendent Cathy Moore said it has reported slower growth over the past three years, but planners expected birth rates and the number of school age children to increase.

That didn’t happen.

“It is now clear to us all that we are looking at a new trend,” Moore said. “We are going to have to review all of our assumptions.”

Birth rates in Wake County are slowing, not increasing, and the number of school-age children has also decreased. Adding to the mix is the growing availability of school-choice options, including charter schools, private schools, and homeschooling.

Charter school enrollment in Wake County increased from about 8,000 students in 2014-15 to more than 13,000 students in 2018-19. This isn’t unique to Wake County. All across the state charter school enrollment is increasing. The story is similar with private schools and homeschooling; both are growing, not only in Wake County but all over North Carolina.

“School choice is having an effect on our enrollment numbers, but if we focus solely on market share then we are not focusing on other important factors,” Moore said. “There are simply fewer children, period.”

Wake County Public Schools still serves the majority of students in the county, with more than 160,000 students attending traditional public schools. While the past decades have featured continuous growth, it appears that trend is ending.

New projections predict the school district will add 559 students for the 2019-20 school year. Enrollment may even shrink in 2025.

“It is important that our parents, our community, and the media critically understand that the enrollment for this year, though it came under projections, does not affect our ability to support students at the current levels that we are supporting them,” Lloyd Gardner, the district’s chief of staff, said.

The new trend poses questions for the future of school construction.

In 2018, Wake County residents approved a $548 school construction bond. Despite the low growth, school officials are adamant the bond is still necessary to alleviate strain on the school districts facilities, especially in highly dense areas. Two-thirds of the money will go toward renovations and facility improvements. The remaining money goes to building new schools in the high-density areas in the southern and western parts of the district.

Gardner said the slowing growth may offer an opportunity to reduce crowding at some of the overburdened schools and help the district catch up on maintenance needs.

Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, said the slow growth may make it hard to justify the need for more school construction bonds.

“Voters are going to be more willing to vote for a bond if they believe that enrollment is going to grow at an unprecedented click,” Stoops said. “The enrollment projections that were published by Wake public schools gave that impression.”

How the district and county planners missed the mark by more than 1,800 students is unclear. Stoops said predicting enrollment is more art than hard science.

“I’m not surprised that the enrollment projections weren’t correct,” Stoops said. “I’m surprised by the magnitude of the error.”