The argument that the GOP-led General Assembly has made repeatedly is that they are spending more on public education now than ever before. And they are correct. We do spend more total money now than before the recession hit. But that is a simplified and spun claim because North Carolina has had a tremendous population increase and the need to educate more students.
Think of it in this manner. Say in 2008, a school district had 1000 students in its school system and spent 10 million dollars in its budget to educate them. That’s a 10,000 per pupil expenditure. Now in 2015, that same district has 1500 students and the school system is spending 11.5 million to educate them. According to Raleigh’s claims, that district is spending more total dollars now than in 2008 on education, but the per-pupil expenditure has gone down significantly to over 2300 dollars per student or 23 percent.
And, do not forget that the state is supposed to finance public education at a fully functional levelbecause the North Carolina State Constitution stipulates it.
The Public School Forum of North Carolina’s publication the 2014 Local School Finance Studyprovides a great history of the state’s practice in funding public schooling which is rooted in the proclamation that all children in the state ages 6-21 are guaranteed a good public education. The publication stated:
North Carolina’s first state constitution in 1776 included an education provision that stated, “A School or Schools shall be established by the Legislature for the convenient Instruction of Youth.” The legislature provided no financial support for schools.
A century later, the constitution adopted after the Civil War required the state to provide funding for all children ages 6-21 to attend school tuition-free. In 1901, the General Assembly appropriated $100,000 for public schools, marking the first time there was a direct appropriation of tax revenue for public schools. Today, the constitution mandates that the state provide a “general and uniform system of free public schools” and that the state legislature may assign counties “such responsibility for the financial support of the free public schools as it may deem appropriate.” N.C. Const. art. IX, § 2 (see sidebar, “Sources of Local School Finance Law: The North Carolina State Constitution”).
Apart from the constitutional provisions, a major change in the school funding structure occurred during the Great Depression. Under the School Machinery Act (enacted in 1931 and amended in 1933), the state assumed responsibility for all current expenses necessary to maintain a minimum eight-month school term and an educational program of basic content and quality (instructional and program expenses). In exchange for the state’s expanded role, local governments assumed responsibility for school construction and maintenance (capital expenses). The School Machinery Act established counties as the basic unit for operating public schools, which is maintained today with large county-wide school systems, except in the 11 counties that also have city school systems.
What this means is that the state has the responsibility for the financing of basic functions for public education like salaries for personnel, services for special-needs students, technology, professional development, even textbooks (remember what new ones look like?). To say that the state spends @%56 of its budget on public education and then consider that to be the end-all-and-be-all to the argument is really ignoring the reasons why such a dynamic exists.
In the past before the recent power grab by the GOP in the NCGA, the state spent an even higher percentage on public education because THAT IS WHAT THE STATE CONSTITUTION DECLARED. Those percentages of spending are not a badge of honor that this General Assembly gets to wear; it was earned many decades ago. The fact that the percentage is getting lower actually is not a positive sign for this administration. It is a reflection that the NCGA’s level of commitment to public education is wavering. Since most of the state funding goes to salaries of certified and classified employees, the fact the percentage of funds from the state is not higher than it was in years past is indicative of the stagnated salaries NC gives to teachers and assistants. With the elimination of funds for professional development and cutting jobs of teaching assistants, how can one brag about the level of money spent on public schooling? And let us not forget the abysmal funds for textbooks to accompany a common core curriculum.
Even the way state funds are dispersed to LEA’s (Local Education Agencies) is a bit disconcerting. North Carolina has 100 county school systems and 15 city systems which combine for 115 LEA’s not including charters and other regional schools. Our state practices a system that simply provides all LEA’s a certain amount of money based on teacher-to-student ratios (even with class size caps removed in high schools) which mostly disregards the needs that individual LEA’s may have, especially in more poverty-stricken areas. Every LEA gets a prescribed amount of money based on a few numbers.
One of the more cohesive explanations of North Carolina’s state funding practices is a publication by the Center for American Progress entitled “The Stealth Inequities of School Funding” produced in 2012. It summarizes our state’s practices in a fairly concise manner. It says,
“North Carolina simply operates a generally unequalized formula that is also only slightly adjusted for differences in student needs and includes a modest adjustment for low-wealth districts (in place of more substantive wealth equalization). That is, while the states spotlighted in previous sections of this chapter allocated portions of their total state aid through separate unequalized formulas, North Carolina’s entire aid formula is of this type. The North Carolina formula is similar in many ways to formulas in other Southern states, including Alabama, which is also highly regressive. The formula is essentially a block-grant formula that determines the amount of state aid to be delivered by calculating the basic cost of providing specific pupil-to-teacher ratios for different grade ranges, as shown in Table 9. The formula provides a handful of supplemental allotments to accommodate special needs. Additionally, the formula assumes an average distribution of county revenue to local schools to support the basic education program (p.46).”
Federal and local funds do count for a portion of resources, but the way those funds are allocated is not a simple formula. What happened when federal Race to the Top money runs out? And how does one explain the amount of local funds that can be raised by poorer rural counties as opposed to more affluent areas of the state?
But it sure as hell makes for an artificially fertile ground to build unregulated charter schools.