Across the country, education leaders face—or will soon confront—difficult choices caused by widespread enrollment declines. The issue is so pervasive that thousands of schools are at risk of closing, according to new data. Many others face disruptions because of smaller staffs, shrinking budgets and merging classrooms.
Last year, a Brookings Institution study on enrollment loss found that about 12% of public elementary schools nationally and 9% of middle schools lost at least 20% of their students over a three-year period that included the pandemic. We now know the official figure—4,428 schools—thanks to updated reporting from The74, which mapped student loss by district.
In North Carolina, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is among the nation’s large districts seeing heavy declines. Twenty-one schools in the district lost at least 20% of their students between the academic years 2019-20 and 2021-22. The Granite School District of Utah suffered the widest declines, where 27% of its schools lost a large portion of students.
The reporting suggests that district leaders should be proactive and develop plans early, as declines are expected to continue. The74 explains:
“I’m not surprised people didn’t want to talk about this until last fall,” said Brian Eschbacher, an enrollment consultant. “There was always hope that the kids were coming back.”
But most have not—part of a decline that is projected to continue throughout the decade. Oregon, New Mexico and West Virginia are among the states expected to see enrollment drop at least another 10%.
South Carolina has numerous districts where enrollment losses exceed 20% in one school or more. North Carolina does too.
This raises an obvious question: Where are these students? Although the report doesn’t delve into this topic specifically, we know that three non-traditional education options—charter schools, private schools and homeschooling—surged in popularity during and after the pandemic.
SHIFTING EDUCATION LANDSCAPE
Over the last four years, charter schools nationally gained more than 300,000 students, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools—an increase of 9%. And in places like North and South Carolina, charter school growth well exceeds the national average.
In the Palmetto State, the number of students attending charter schools grew by more than 25% over three years. “During that same period,” The Center Square writes, “non-charter public school enrollment decreased by more than 1%—from 747,652 to 739,745.” It’s much the same in North Carolina, where charter enrollment grew by nearly 19%.
Private school attendance is another clear factor. Nationwide enrollment is up 7.8% (adding 268,000 students) since the 2019-20 school year, according to The News and Observer. They also report that North Carolina “had the nation’s fifth-highest growth in private school enrollment since the 2019-20 school year.”
Many parents have also turned to homeschooling for its flexibility, which the Washington Post called the “fastest-growing form of education” in 2023. Home-based education spiked after COVID-19, when schools shut down for weeks and even months in many communities. And while rates have mostly plateaued since the pandemic, South Carolina is one of four states where homeschooling continues to expand.
According to ABCNews4, homeschool enrollment in the state increased by 49% between school years 2017-18 and 2022-23. Much of this growth occurred in the Lowcountry, where all but one district (Charleston County School District) saw homeschool enrollment gains. In two districts, Berkeley County School District and Dorchester District Two, the number of homeschooled students grew by 107% and 35%, respectively.
These changes undoubtedly pose challenges for district leaders; however, they also present opportunities. Specifically, districts with a firm commitment to academic excellence and student achievement will stand out and find the most success. This focus is crucial as parents emphasize education quality and look for schools that meet their children’s learning needs.