Guest columnists: NC school funding increases do not tell whole story

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 13, 2022

By Walter Hart, Eric Houck and Jim Watson

We recently read a My Turn column in the Post suggesting that North Carolina supports its public schools because educational funding increased over the past decade (“Has legislature actually been stingy with education funding?” published Feb. 3″). Yes, overall spending on education has increased. But overall spending does not tell the whole story. 

A hypothetical example illustrates this point. Suppose your family was blessed with an increase in income. And suppose your family also was blessed with newborn triplets, creating the need for a larger home. And suppose one of the triplets had health concerns that required additional medical care. The increase in income might not be sufficient to meet the additional challenges.  

As this hypothetical example illustrates, the real question is not whether the state spends more on education than it did a decade ago. The real question is whether North Carolina provides adequate resources to provide all children with their constitutionally guaranteed right to a sound, basic education. The evidence suggests that it does not. Much of the increased school funding over the past decade has been offset by inflationary costs and the significant growth in the number of schoolchildren. The following facts support this assertion.

North Carolina is one of the fastest-growing states, and the number of schoolchildren has grown significantly. Our public schools added approximately 201,000 new students between 2000 and 2015. While that growth slowed some over the past couple of years, our public schools are serving record numbers of children. When adjusted for inflation and increased enrollment, the amount of money spent per child in our schools has not kept pace.  Another way to say this is that while North Carolina is spending more on education overall, it is not spending more per pupil.

Even as total funding has increased, so have the demands on schools. Sadly, childhood poverty in our state is dreadfully high. For the first time in our history, about 60% of schoolchildren qualify for free-and-reduced meal prices, a common measure of poverty. Research has consistently demonstrated children in poverty face additional learning challenges that demand additional personnel and resources. This increase in childhood poverty has been accompanied by an increase in the percentages of schoolchildren with disabilities and children for whom English is not the primary language spoken in the home. Meeting the educational needs of these children also requires additional resources.  

So, the double factors of student growth and an increase in children with additional educational needs demand increased investment from the state into its public education system. 

How has North Carolina responded to these increased demands on our traditional public schools? During the past decade, our state has dramatically increased support for charter and private schools, drawing funding away from traditional public schools. In fact, the private school voucher funds provided by the state have never been fully spent, indicating that parents have much less interest in this program than state legislators do. And the number of state-funded teaching positions has been reduced while about 7,000 teacher assistant positions were eliminated.  

As a result, the number of adults working with children in schools has decreased even as the demands on schools have increased. Also, state funds for instructional supplies and books for classrooms are lower. And for inexplicable reasons, our state eliminated the successful Teaching Fellows scholarship program that attracted bright young people into teaching during a time of teacher shortages. Following public uproar, a smaller version of the Teaching Fellows program was reinstated.  

Policy analysts have noted North Carolina’s school funding inadequacies. In its 2021 state-by-state analysis of school funding, the national Education Law Center gave North Carolina a grade of “F” for its school funding level, meaning that we scored lower than our neighbors in South Carolina and our friends in the state of West Virginia (among others). The recent, court-commissioned WestEd report also found North Carolina funding levels were inadequate.  

Teachers, principals, and policy analysts echo the same refrain — North Carolina is not providing adequate funding for its schoolchildren. If funding were adequate, as suggested in the previous column, wouldn’t at least one of these groups have noticed? Increases in overall funding do not tell the whole story of the state’s lack of investment in its children.  

Walter Hart of China Grove and Jim Watson of Lincolnton teach in the Department of Educational Leadership at UNC Charlotte. Eric Houck of Chapel Hill is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at UNC Chapel-Hill. All three focus much of their work in the area of school finance.

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