Study finds chronic, growing gap in NC school system funding ‘once again’

February 19, 2019

A study released Tuesday by the Public School Forum of North Carolina “once again illustrates a chronic and growing gap in public school funding between the highest and lowest-wealth counties in the state,” according to the group. The Public School Forum has called the gap “chronic” and “stark” in previous years as well.

The 2019 Local School Finance Study found that the 10 highest spending counties spent on average $3,200 per student compared to $755 by the 10 lowest spending counties, with a gap of $2,445 per student. That gap is the largest since the Forum began tracking the figure in 1987.

“Year after year, our poorest counties fall further behind our wealthier ones in terms of resources available to their local schools,” Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Public School Forum of NC said in a statement. “These funding disparities have a real impact on educational opportunity for students, particularly in in terms of the ability of lower wealth counties to fund local supplemental pay to attract and retain the teachers they need to serve students.”

Funding disparities have tangible impacts in North Carolina classrooms, according to the group. Local salary supplements for teachers, for example, are generally greater in high-wealth and larger districts, better positioning them to attract and retain top talent. Rural districts, which already face challenges in recruiting and retaining highly skilled teachers, are at an even greater disadvantage if they are not able to offer competitive pay, the group said.

In 2016-17, the 10 highest-spending counties spent more than four times more per child than the 10 lowest-spending counties. Orange County, at the top of the list, spends more than 11 times more per student than Swain County at the bottom. The bottom seven counties combined spend $396 less than Orange County spends on its own. Fifty-nine of North Carolina’s 100 counties spend below the state average of $1,652 per student in local support.

For more than 30 years, the Public School Forum of North Carolina has isolated local spending from state and federal spending to examine the capacity and actual effort of counties to support public schools. The annual Local School Finance Study focuses not only on the amount that counties spend on schools, but also on each county’s investment in the context of that county’s taxable resources.

In 2016-17, the 10 poorest counties taxed themselves at nearly double the rate of the 10 wealthiest counties – $0.81 compared to $0.44, a 37-cent difference. Because of the disparities in real estate wealth, however, the revenue that the poorest counties could generate – even at their higher tax rates – was substantially lower than what the wealthier counties could generate.

“Policy decisions at the state level have helped by providing additional funds for the state’s smallest and lowest-wealth counties, yet investments in schools still vary dramatically by zip code,” Lauren Fox, Forum senior director of policy, said in a statement. “North Carolinians living in lower wealth districts face an impossible financial burden to support public education; consequently, their schools are more poorly resourced than those in wealthier counties.”

School finance officers across the state tell the Public School Forum there is need for greater state funding across the board, according to the group. They say reductions in state funding for instructional resources, greater restrictions on spending flexibility across allotments, and increased state mandates such as the K-3 class size restrictions are putting additional strains on all districts.

“Greater equity and flexibility in spending across local districts would certainly help low-wealth districts better serve their students’ needs, but it is critical, based on the Forum’s conversations with district leaders, that the state increase funding for education for all schools,” the group said.

In 2018, work by several entities ramped up in ways that may soon lead to fundamental shifts in the state’s funding for public schools, according to the group. In the landmark court case Leandro v. State, Judge David Lee ordered independent consultant WestEd to create an in-depth report, to be released in 2019, which will review and analyze North Carolina’s performance on the dimensions of adequacy and equity in school finance.

Separately, the Governor’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education has been examining the key areas highlighted in the Leandro case and will engage in implementation of the remedial process. In addition, the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Task Force on Education Finance Reform continues its consideration of a major overhaul to the state’s school finance system based on a weighted student funding formula, with a final report due in October 2019.

“It is imperative that the governor, the State Board of Education, DPI (Department of Public Instruction), and the General Assembly be prepared to act on the recommendations of the independent consultant, WestEd, and to reconcile them with the separate work being done by the governor’s Leandro Commission and the Joint Legislative Task Force on Education Finance Reform,” Poston said. “It is past time the state moves toward satisfying its obligation to provide every North Carolina child with access to sound basic education.”

The Public School Forum believes a new method for funding our public schools should include the following: