Task Force on Education Finance Reform meeting shows need for new approach

Yesterday marked the third meeting of the Joint Legislative Task Force on Education Finance Reform. The Task Force is charged with creating recommendations by October 2018 to overhaul the way North Carolina funds its public schools. It’s a big, important task. One would assume that the General Assembly would only embark on such an undertaking based on a deep understanding of how the state’s existing school finance system works and what specific problems they hope to remedy through a complete overhaul. Unfortunately, yesterday’s meeting laid bare what little effort General Assembly leaders have made in understanding how our school finance model works. Their ignorance bodes poorly for anyone hoping that the Task Force will lead to better outcomes for our students.

This third meeting featured two presentations from the Department of Public Instruction. First, DPI’s Chief Financial Officer, Adam Levinson, presented on how North Carolina funds its public schools. In the second presentation, DPI’s Director of School Business, Alexis Schauss, provided the Task Force with a detailed accounting of how the agency implements the budget, distributes funds to school districts, and gathers data.

Both presentations contain important, detailed information. The problem is that they contain the type of information you need to know before you make the decision to overhaul the state’s school finance system, not after. You can’t say the current system is broken and needs replacement without first understanding how the existing system works.

And based on yesterday’s meeting, it was clear that Task Force members have no idea how the existing system works.

As a reminder, the Task Force was initiated in response to a November 2016 report from the General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division (PED). The report was highly critical of North Carolina’s school finance system. But the report was also deeply flawed. It failed to examine whether the current system is working properly, and presented a set of recommendations that would shift funding from poor districts to richer districts. Despite these critical flaws, the report served as the basis for the General Assembly’s conclusion that North Carolina’s school finance system must be completely redesigned (the Task Force’s first meeting centered on a presentation of the PED report).

At a bare minimum then, one would expect that Task Force members would have actually read the PED report. But in questions during Levinson’s presentation, Task Force Co-Chair, Sen. Michael Lee, off-handedly mentioned that he had not read the PED report. As a lead Senate education budget writer and Task Force Co-Chair, Lee’s failure to read the PED report is a glaring dereliction of duty, demonstrating a shocking indifference to the policies he’s in charge of overseeing. Without having read the PED report, it is unclear how Lee has reached the conclusion the current school finance system is fatally flawed.

The Task Force’s other Co-Chair, Rep. Craig Horn made what was an even more shocking admission: “I’m still trying to get my head around position allotments,” he told Levinson. Position allotments are the central feature of North Carolina’s school finance system. More than 60 percent of school funding is distributed to districts via position allotments (an explanation of position allotments can be found in the report What You Need to Know: Financing Education in North Carolina). Rep. Horn has been one of the House’s lead education budget writers for five years. There is no excuse for someone in his position to not understand how position allotments work. Further, nobody who has yet to get his head around position allotments should be declaring that the current system is broken and in need of complete overhaul.

Sadly, the Task Force is reflecting the worst tendencies of this General Assembly. As detailed in the recently published report The Unraveling, General Assembly leaders have shown an indifference to effective governing this decade. They continue to undertake massive education reforms without making efforts to understand how things work or following processes that will lead to effective outcomes.

There is still time for the Task Force to take a different approach. Yesterday’s meeting should be a wake-up call that they have moved too quickly in determining the current school finance system is in need for complete overhaul. Task Force members would clearly benefit from additional educational meetings to ensure they have a sound understanding of school finance. Everyone wants a system that is “good,” but democratic reform requires a clear, shared understanding of what goals we’re working towards. First, define what is meant when folks say they want a school finance system that is adequate, equitable, stable, and transparent. Then, assess the current system against those measures to identify what specific problems require solving. But unless Task Force members are willing to put in a serious effort, they will continue to embarrass themselves and squander an important opportunity to improve our education system.

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