New report: School funding gaps between wealthy, poor counties in N.C. on the rise

Public School Forum President & Executive Director Keith Poston

Major public school funding gaps between North Carolina’s poorest and wealthiest counties are on the rise, according to a nonpartisan assessment of the state’s K-12 spending released this week.

The annual study, released Tuesday by the Public School Forum of N.C., a K-12 policy group in Raleigh, documents the yawning gaps in per-pupil funding across the state, largely a testament to counties’ widely varied tax bases.

“The end result is our poorer counties continue to fall further behind our wealthier counties in terms of resources available to their local schools,” said Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Public School Forum, in a statement. “Young people born into one of the state’s economically thriving counties will have levels of investment in their education not shared elsewhere in the state; perpetuating a ‘have’ or ‘have not’ scenario for children’s access to high quality education based solely on zip code.”

Among the key takeaways of the report—which also examines a district’s ability to spend in the context of their tax base—high-wealth counties such as Orange County can spend more than $4,700 per student, far exceeding the state average of about $1,500. Poorer regions like Swain County spent less than $400 per student.

Meanwhile, the ten highest spending counties spent an average of about $3,026 per student, far outstripping the lowest spending counties, which spent an average of $710, according to the report, which relied on data from the 2014-2015 academic year.

This week’s report comes weeks after state House lawmakers approved a proposal to launch a task force for revamping North Carolina’s complicated system of school funding, although it’s unclear when or if the Senate will take up the bill. Critics, meanwhile, have noted that task force, if approved, is not expected to consider the overall adequacy of the state’s K-12 funding.

A report from the legislature’s Program Evaluation Division in November shredded the system as unfair to poor counties, students with special needs and students with limited English proficiency.

And, although some critics have argued GOP-led reforms may only worsen the divide between poor and wealthy counties, lawmakers are expected to pursue so-called “student-based funding,” which designates a base amount of spending per student along with additional tiers of funding for students in need.

The Public School Forum addressed those plans this week.

“This year the General Assembly is considering options to overhaul the state’s school finance system,” said Poston. “Our concern is that a new system alone that does not address adequacy and equity will not change these trend lines and will continue to leave poorer counties behind. We encourage our legislators to ensure that adequacy and equity in school finance remain top priorities.”

“When it comes to funding our public schools, the focus should be on how we ensure there are adequate resources in every county to serve every child, regardless of the delivery structure for those necessary investments. Even in the school systems that get the most support from their local government, resources are stretched and overall the state’s per pupil spending still lags compared to the national average.”

Also of note in this week’s report, the gaps in local funding per student persist despite data that show North Carolina’s ten poorest counties taxed themselves at almost double the rate of the state’s ten most affluent counties.

Historically speaking, North Carolina’s local governments have been responsible for funding their local school infrastructure, while state government bankrolls schools’ operational needs. However, as noted by public school advocates, local governments are increasingly being called upon to fund operations, including staffing at key positions.

This week’s Public School Forum report shows counties funded 18.8 percent of principal and assistant principal positions, 6.5 percent of teachers, 11.8 percent of teacher assistants and 20.9 percent of instructional support staff.

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