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Expert urges caution as North Carolina lawmakers consider school funding overhaul

An expert in school funding models told North Carolina lawmakers Wednesday they should tread lightly to avoid “unintended consequences” as they consider a major face-lift for K-12 funding.

Michael Griffith, a school finance strategist with the Education Commission of the States—an interstate compact for K-12 policymaking—said legislators should also court public feedback.

“The  more you can bring the public into the process, the better it’s going to be,” Griffith said. “And the easier it’s going to be for them to accept the formula.”

Griffith addressed a pivotal legislative panel that, over the next two years or more, is expected to prepare a comprehensive overhaul of the state funding system or patch shortfalls detailed in a scathing 2016 report.

It’s unclear if or when state House and Senate legislators on the Joint Legislative Task Force for Education Finance Reform would hold public feedback sessions on the proposed overhaul, which is expected to steer leaders toward a simpler funding model.

Lawmakers rebuffed calls to include representation from local school district finance offices when they created the task force this year.

The panel, which is likely to produce an interim report sometime in 2018, will move in its first meetings to develop members’ knowledge base on the complicated funding method.

The state’s system hinges on 37 separate allocations for various K-12 needs, which dictate how local governments receive cash from state coffers. Separate allocations exist for teachers, classroom supplies, students with limited English proficiency as well as poor and rural counties.

N.C. Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union

Lawmakers are pushing for a “student-based” funding method, whereby the state sets a certain dollar amount per student and builds in weights for students in need of additional support.

“In order for us to grasp really the scope and extent of what’s in front of us, we need to learn a lot more about how we got here, what other states are doing and what our options are,” said Rep. Craig Horn, the Union County Republican who spearheaded this year’s efforts to launch the task force.

Griffith was the only presenter on Wednesday’s agenda. An expert who says he’s read all 50 states’ funding formulas, Griffith characterized North Carolina’s model as complicated, but not the most complicated in the nation.

However, he criticized the system as being overly “rigid,” requiring constant adjustment by state leaders as they reconfigure public school costs.

Griffith also reminded lawmakers that other methods such as the student-based funding model don’t necessarily guarantee greater equity for students, a key consideration as legislators consider doing away with various allocations erected to dispense more cash to high-needs districts.

Whatever the state’s decision, Griffith emphasized the difficulty and controversy baked into a complete funding model change, suggesting legislators extend at least a temporary “hold harmless” provision in to any funding model change that would buffer any districts that may lose dollars.

A date for the task force’s next meeting has not been determined yet. Stay tuned to Policy Watch for more updates.

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