The math of school spending

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 10, 2013

RALEIGH — During last year’s legislative session, quite a bit of debate occurred regarding the real effects of budget-cutting on the public schools.
Legislative Republicans argued that they were increasing public school spending; Democrats said increases were not keeping up with inflation and rising student enrollment.
By the time the General Assembly adjourned, both sides were wagging their fingers, essentially saying, “We’ll see.”
Some seeing is going on now.
Better than three months into the school year, state school officials have enough data so that a reasonable picture can be painted about what is going on in the classroom.

The Associated Press recently reported that school payroll records in North Carolina indicated that 60 fewer teachers were in the classroom this year than last year. State-paid teachers actually declined by 589, but locally-paid teachers increased by 529, the records showed.
Meanwhile, enrollment numbers showed 17,200 more students in the classroom. That enrollment increase means that, to keep actual class size roughly the same, at around 23 students each, the state really needed another 740 teachers.
By just about any calculation, another round of cutting projected growth in the public school budget — even with a slight year-over-year increase in actual funding — has meant larger class sizes in the 2013-14 school year.
So, the Democrats can wag their fingers a bit more.
But not too much.
Public school officials, at the same meeting where those payroll records were released, showed that the trend of teaching hires not keeping pace with student enrollment goes back five years.
Over those five years, the size of the public school population in North Carolina grew by 45,071 students. Only 348 more teachers were hired over the same period.
During the first two years of that five-year period, Democrats’ owned most of the political power in North Carolina, so they have to shoulder some of the blame.

Then again, 2009 and 2010 were some of the toughest years financially for state government since the Great Depression. The economic recovery in the years since, even if it has been fairly tepid, has meant that the Republicans now in power are in a better position to put more resources into the public schools.
They can argue otherwise, and talk about no school houses shutting their doors, but they have clearly chosen another course.
With an economic recovery only barely under way, they decided to make cutting taxes their top priority.
They can sell that to the public as the bigger need, that tax cuts trump investments in education because — in their view — they promote economic growth. They can also argue that the schools were fat, that money and class size do not define and determine success.
And the public can decide whether they buy the arguments.
What legislative Republicans cannot do, based on the numbers, is argue that they are putting the same level of resources into the public schools as in pre-Great Recession North Carolina.

Scott Mooneyham is a columnist who covers state government for Capitol Press Association.