Commentary

Experts provide more details on devious, potentially disastrous change in school funding

It’s been reported previously in recent weeks, but this essay in this morning’s edition of Raleigh’s News & Observer by veteran  education policy experts Helen Ladd and Ted Fiske provides what is perhaps the most thorough review thus far of the potentially disastrous decision by the General Assembly and Governor McCrory to alter an 80-year-old mechanism for funding schools and student growth.

In a last-minute change that was taken with no hearings and no prior publicity, the Republican-controlled General Assembly has undermined the fundamental building block of school finance in North Carolina.

Ever since the state took over responsibility from the local districts for funding public schools during the Great Depression, state funding in North Carolina has been based on the number of students served. When a local district’s school rolls increased or decreased, the state would adjust the funding up or down accordingly, using a variety of formulas, all of them driven by the number of students.

Under legislation enacted last month, the legislature has scrapped this system. From now on, every spring the state will make an initial commitment of state funds to districts for the following year based on the number of students currently enrolled rather than, as in the past, on their projected enrollments. In other words, districts with growing enrollments will no longer be guaranteed an increase in per pupil funds to cover the costs of educating the additional students.

Any additional funds will have to be negotiated as part of the legislature’s more general budgetary process later in the year.

Local and state school finance officers describe this change, seemingly quite technical in nature, as the most fundamental, even “drastic,” change in school finance in North Carolina in nearly a century. It constitutes a direct attack on the state’s ability to carry out its constitutional obligation to provide a sound basic education to all children in the state.

The essay goes on to detail some not-very-savory explanations for the technical but important change: the lack of funds available as the result of tax cuts, the overall war on public education and, of course, politics. As the Ladd and Fiske note:
There is, of course, one juicy political possibility for Republicans once they set an artificially low base for state education funding and then make adjustments to accommodate student growth part of the political process. This change would allow them to claim credit for increasing education funding, when in fact they are simply meeting the constitutional requirement to provide a sound basic education to a rising number of students.
The sleight of hand continues.

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