RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- When the pandemic hit Karen Goeke-Austin made the decision to homeschool her oldest daughter, Katie.
"I was really nervous about her going back to public school in 6th grade because she was so far behind and the schools just weren't catching her up," Goeke-Austin told ABC11 last August.
The transition to a remote working position gave Goeke-Austin the chance to finally try out homeschooling, something she always wanted to do. The family called the school Mountain View Academy.
"I know in our particular case, she had somewhat of a traumatic elementary experience and so, she really needed these two years to kind of recover emotionally and then also kind of regain some of the skills that she hadn't been getting in public, so we did a lot of outside tutoring and a lot more focused interventions with her during the last two years, and now that she's gotten caught up to her peers, we feel more comfortable sending her back to public (school)," Goeke -Austin said.
After two years, the family decided to close Mountain View Academy.
"We enjoyed our homeschool experience. We really did. There were a lot of benefits, a lot of perks. There were some struggles here and there. And so now that she's back in public, some of those struggles have gone away. It was tricky for her to always be in charge of her own learning. And because I work a full-time job, I couldn't always be there to answer her questions," Goeke-Austin said.
Katie is now an eighth-grader at Holly Grove Middle School and six weeks into the new school year. She said she's enjoying science and math and all the new friends she's made.
She is one of the thousands of families who are now opting out of home school.
Close to 31,000 more students participated in homeschooling during the 2020-2021 school year than did in the year before, according to data from the North Carolina Department of Administration. But, like Katie, many of those students chose not to make that schooling option permanent. State data showed that 19,000 fewer students were enrolled in home school last year.
However, while homeschool numbers decline, public schools across the state are not reporting a large uptick.
Only 2,600 more students were enrolled in public schools during the 2021-22 school year compared to the year before. Across North Carolina, 50,000 fewer students were enrolled in public school last year than the year before the pandemic, representing a 4% decrease.
Locally, public school districts in Wake (-1%), Durham (-3%) and Cumberland County (-4%) are also reporting a decrease in the number of students enrolled.
At the same time, public school districts are reporting a drop, enrollment at charter schools across the state is booming. Nearly 20% more students attended a charter school last year compared to the 2018-2019 school year.
Wake County ranked third in the state for the largest increase in charter school enrollment last year, according to state data.
The various school options make planning for public school districts a challenge.
Wake County School Board member Christine Kushner also said charter schools particularly can also affect some of the district's both short-term and long-term planning.
"The difficulty in planning, I think, is also a problem with using public resources and tax dollars efficiently. So that's one of my increasing concerns is that the charter school movement with its expansion and closures and unpredictability is straining already strained public resources and that should be a concern for every taxpayer in North Carolina," Kushner said.
About 20 new charter schools have been added during the past three years and a number have been forced to suddenly close by the state, some for 'financial irregularities.'
Kushner said she is also concerned by the lower standard of accountability charter schools are held to and about their impact on the make-up of student populations.
"Charter schools have never really scaled to include all children. I think that's an important point to make and that charter schools aren't looking to educate every child. And for taxpayers, for public dollars that are becoming increasingly scarce, I think it's important for us to be efficient with those dollars and fragmenting our school systems are creating two-tiered systems," Kushner said.
A previous ABC11 investigation uncovered that 60% of charter schools have higher portions of white students enrolled than their local public school district.
The latest state data does show the biggest change in enrollment is among white students. Nine percent fewer white students are enrolled in public schools than in the year leading up to the pandemic.
Another concern is the financial impact a slipping student population could have on public school districts.
State funding for districts is usually tied to enrollment numbers. For the last few years, state leaders have not used this data to determine funding, but this year public school districts' enrollment will matter again. If districts report a significant drop in the number of students they serve, cuts to resources may have to be made.
It's still too soon to know how districts will be impacted as initial enrollment numbers aren't released until a few weeks after school resumes. Public school leaders like Kushner are hopeful enrollment starts to stabilize.
"There's a lot of uncertainty, but we have to face it with as much optimism and proactive work as we can," she said.