Garrett Gunter Headshot

With Raleigh ranked as one of the best places to live in the United States and experiencing record growth as a result, it might come as a shock to many that the Wake County school system only grew by 42 students during the 2018-2019 school year instead of the projected 1,856. Because the school system gained only 2.26% of its forecasted growth, school officials are busy changing future projections and pointing fingers at potential culprits on social media.

Officials blame a decline of birth rates in Wake County, an aging of the population, and increasing competition from charter, private, and home schools in the area. The Wake County Student Enrollment Projection Memo details the aging county demographics and the declining market share of the Wake County Public School System. On a local level, not much can be done to incentivize families to have more children, so many point to charter schools and the declining market share of students enrolled in Wake County public schools.

Charter schools have been gaining popularity exponentially in North Carolina since 2011, when Republican leadership in the N.C. General Assembly removed the 100 charter school limit to foster the growth of publicly funded charter schools. Prior to 2011, only 100 publicly funded charter schools were allowed to exist, yet repealing the 1996 cap on the number has opened the gateway to a virtually unlimited number of charter schools to open. These schools are typically privately operated with minimal local oversight and receive funding proportional to the number of students they enroll within the county.

From 2007-2013, the public school system held approximately 83% of the county’s market share of students, yet this proportion has fallen every year since the 2012-13 school year. On the other hand, charter schools doubled their proportional market share from 3% during the 2008-09 school year to 6% during the 2017-18 school year, according to the projection memo.

I wonder why citizens and school board members worry about the declining market share of Wake County Schools and the rise of publicly funded charter schools in the state; public charter schools generally outperform traditional public schools and offer students with a more flexible education. By any objective standard, it seems that the rise of charter schools in North Carolina represents a triumph in the field of publicly funded education, although some do not see it that way. 

Critics such as Wake County School Board Chairman Jim Martin argue that opening new charter schools takes funding away from traditional schools. Since charter schools are not legally compelled to provide things such as bus service or school meals, Martin argues that charter schools experience an unfair advantage over traditional public schools, and that this advantage comes at the expense of students in public schools. Critics are also concerned with the lack of accountability opening the door to racial discrimination once again within the public education system.

Yet proponents of charter schools and of school choice, such as myself, argue that objectively better aggregate performance of charter school students over public schools (particularly in low income areas) combined with staggering demand for charter schools, evidenced by long waitlists and lottery systems, shows why enrollment in Wake County Public Schools is declining, and it’s nothing to complain about. The flexibility offered to students in charter schools helps students receive a unique and individual education rather than the one-size-fits-all education found within public schools. One need not look beyond the School Board’s decree to use the Math Vision Project curriculum to find parents’ discontentment with the lack of flexibility within public schools.

Instead of trying to reverse the declining growth of Wake County Public Schools, citizens of Wake County should understand that the current lineup of charter schools still does not meet parents’ demand for them. In my opinion, this means Wake County should build more charter schools to further decrease the number of students enrolled in public schools. Public schools are objectively less effective at educating young people than charter schools, so we should look to well-run charter schools as examples of the future of public K-12 education.