Commentary, Education

Memo to charter school advocates: Get your facts straight; stop undermining traditional public education

North Carolina charter advocates continually complain of an “unfair” funding system despite regularly outspending comparable traditional public schools. An analysis of expenditure data from the ’18-19 school year indicates that charter schools maintain a small, $83 per-student local funding advantage over similar public schools. Charter advocates seeking greater investment in charter students should stop trying to take money from the less-advantaged traditional sector and instead work together to ensure state leaders deliver adequate funding for all students.

North Carolina’s schools – both traditional schools and charters – receive funding from three sources: state, local, and federal. In all cases, funding for charters is on par with funding for traditional public schools.

In the ’18-19 school year, federal funding (excluding child nutrition funding) comprised just 6% of operating expenditures in traditional schools, compared to 4% in charter schools. But traditional and charter schools compete for federal funds on relatively equal funding. The vast majority of federal funding supports students from families with low incomes (Title I) and students with disabilities (IDEA). Traditional schools’ “advantage” in federal spending simply reflects that traditional public schools enroll a higher share of students from families with low incomes and students with disabilities.

Traditional and charter schools compete on pretty much equal funding when it comes to state funding, as well. Essentially, charters receive the same per-student funding of the district in which the charter school is located, except that a charter’s amounts for English learners and students with disabilities are calculated based on actual enrollment in the charter school. Contrary to the claims of charter advocates, charter schools receive an equal per-student share of transportation funding. To the extent charters are shortchanged, it’s that they aren’t eligible for state funding for replacement school buses (they should be). But charters also benefit from allotments like At-Risk and Disadvantaged Student Supplemental Funding that are calculated based on county-wide estimates of student need despite charters having fewer at-risk or disadvantaged students.

It’s local funding that has consistently been the subject of charter advocates’ dishonest whining. Specifically, they have falsely claimed that, when it comes to local funding, “for every one dollar sent to traditional public schools, public charters receive less than 75 cents.” The claim appears absurd on its face, as per-student spending in charter schools exceeded spending in traditional public schools by $246 per student in ’18-19 (see Tables 25 and 40.2 of DPI’s Statistical Profile). To be fair, that comparison overstates charters’ local spending advantage. Charter students disproportionately hail from urban districts with higher levels of local spending. But the charter advantage remains even after adjusting for students’ residence. Per-pupil local spending in traditional districts where the average charter student lives was $2,485 in 18-19, while their charter schools spent $2,567 per student, a difference of $83 per student.

The difference is quite small in the grand scheme of things. But hopefully the analysis of actual data will finally convince charter leaders from pretending they receive “a fraction of the funding that traditional public schools receive.” If charter leaders think their funding is too low (in most charter schools it probably is!), then they should be advocating for greater funding for all public schools. More specifically, the state’s plan for bringing an end to the long-running Leandro court case by providing a constitutional education to all students would increase state funding in charter schools by about 40 percent, or $2,500 per student.

For charter schools, there is little to be gained from continually trying to slice away funding from their traditional school counterparts. Charter leaders sincerely interested in securing additional funding for their students should stop the dishonest whining, and instead unite with the public school advocates seeking to deliver adequately funded schools for all of North Carolina’s public school students.

Kris Nordstrom is a Senior Policy Analyst with the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education & Law Project.

Commentary, COVID-19, Education

How the COVID-19 packages compare for public schools

Lawmakers have returned to Raleigh this week, aiming to pass a series of bills to help the state manage through the COVID-19 crisis. To date, the House, Senate, and Governor have all released plans to distribute funding received from federal relief bills and to modify state regulations. The plans are a reflection of the crisis we face: massive and complex.

One of the primary challenges for state lawmakers is how to mitigate the harm caused by the closure of public schools. School closures have exacerbated existing inequalities in our school system. Lawmakers must figure out how best to minimize the harm caused by fewer instructional days, diminished instructional quality and widespread trauma.

The table below summarizes the major differences between the competing plans released by the Senate, the House, the Governor, and the State Board of Education.


1 S704, Edition 1
2 H1035 Edition 1 and H1038 Edition 2
3 Recommended money and provisions, as found here and here
4 As presented at 4/23 SBE meeting here
5 Funding from child nutrition may be used to provide incentive pay for school nutrition and transportation staff involved in the preparation and distribution of meals and food packages
6 Governor’s package includes $243 million in public school funding to address the needs outlined in the State Board request, but does not specify dollar amounts for specific programs

Money Items
As the table shows, none of the plans fully fund every request made by the SBE, but the Governor’s plan comes the closest. While it omits the SBE’s request to hire additional support personnel to address students’ physical and mental health needs upon returning to school, the Governor also states that it remains his intention to provide that funding at a future date with state money.

The House plan also funds the majority of the SBE’s request, though not always to the dollar amount.

As is frequently the case, the Senate’s plan is the most miserly, providing funding only for child nutrition and a summer bridge program.

Provisions
The plans all include the technical changes necessitated by the elimination of school testing for this year. In other policy areas, however, the plans differ in the extent to which they help schools navigate the challenges they will face over the coming months.

Researchers are estimating substantial learning loss. One way schools might mitigate the “COVID slide” would be starting their school year earlier than currently allowed. Under current law, schools can’t start earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26. The House and Senate plans move the allowable starting date up to Aug. 17. In contrast, the Governor’s plan eschews arbitrary starting dates, allowing school districts to establish calendars that best address their students’ needs.

Spending flexibility is another tool that can help districts navigate an uncertain future. Lawmakers have enacted numerous restrictions in recent years limiting schools’ budgetary flexibility. The Senate and Governor’s plans fail to provide districts with new spending flexibility. The House plan takes the meager step of lifting restrictions on funds for driver’s education and teacher assistants (representing just 4% of schools’ state funding). A smarter approach would be to maximize spending flexibility as the General Assembly did during the Great Recession.

The House and Senate plans both create onerous new reporting requirements. These requirements will force central offices — already stretched to the breaking point by legislative budget cuts — to prioritize compiling paperwork for legislators instead of finding innovative ways to meet the needs of their students. For example, it’s unclear how students benefit from the Senate requirement that schools report to the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee with a comprehensive catalog of every online and offline remote instruction resource used by schools.

Finally, lawmakers should avoid unfunded mandates. The Senate plan creates new school responsibilities without providing commensurate increases in funding. For example, providing technology support for all students experiencing technical difficulties and adding five instructional days will create new costs for districts without additional funding.

How to improve these plans
Both the Governor and House plans offer reasonable starting points for addressing immediate needs. In the coming days, these plans could be improved in several ways:

  • Maximizing school spending flexibility to the extent allowable under federal law
  • Distributing funding in accordance with student need
  • Removing arbitrary school calendar restrictions
  • Eliminating any reporting requirements unnecessary to comply with federal law
  • Improving budgetary stability by holding districts harmless for enrollment decreases in the next school year
  • Avoiding any unfunded mandates

It is important to remember that these plans are focused on immediate concerns that can be addressed with federal funding. The unprecedented challenges faced by our students will require additional action — and state funding — to avoid backsliding. Substantially more will be required to deliver the type of education our students are owed.

Commentary, Education

At time of glaring education needs, state voucher program remains wastefully overfunded

In a year with no budget, one program for K-12 students was guaranteed a funding increase of more than 30%: the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program. And once again, that funding will substantially outpace demand for vouchers. As a result, the state is on pace to waste more than $26 million that could otherwise be used to help students in public schools.

Since its inception, funding for the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program has exceeded demand for vouchers. Nonetheless, lawmakers decided in 2016 that the program should receive automatic funding increases of $10 million per year through FY 2027-28 when total appropriations for the program will reach $144.8 million.

Additionally, the 2016 changes caused the program to become “forward-funded.” That means next year’s $10 million funding increase is sitting unused in a state bank account this year, unavailable for other functional purposes.

The chart above shows the trend in unused funds in each year of the voucher program’s existence. Unused funds are defined as fiscal year appropriation, plus funds carried over from the prior year, less expenditures on administration and voucher awards.

The out-sized amount of unused funds in FY 2016-17 were largely the result of the decision to begin forward-funding the program that year. Subsequent increases have been driven by voucher demand falling further behind available funding.

Without even getting into the merits of an unregulated voucher program (the merits are few), the continued over-funding of this program is indefensible. As documented in the Leandro consultant’s report published this past December, North Carolina’s school budget is $3.7 billion short (about 35%) of what’s needed to meet the bare minimum of what the state constitution says is required. It’s perverse to leave millions of dollars sitting needlessly idle each year when lawmakers are failing to meet their constitutional obligations to children.

Commentary, Education

The pandemic will harm vulnerable students, which is why we must continue fighting for vulnerable students

Image: AdobeStock

The coronavirus pandemic has led to the closure of North Carolina’s schools through at least May 15, and students will face a growing set of challenges:

  • Loss of instructional days
  • Diminished instructional quality
  • Uptick in adverse childhood experiences
  • Likely cuts to school budgets

Education research provides us with a good idea of what these changes will mean for students, and none of it is good. School closures, the transition to online learning, a surge of family trauma, and continued hits to school resources will all harm students’ educational growth, while also widening disparities between the privileged and the vulnerable.

The invaluable Matt Barnum of Chalkbeat provides an excellent summary of how the coronavirus pandemic will derail student learning. Barnum’s comprehensive survey of the academic literature reaches the following conclusions:

  • Lengthy school closures will likely hurt students, and perhaps follow them into adulthood. Studies of summer reading loss vary on findings related to test score gaps, but consistently show that fewer school days lead to less learning. School closures from teacher strikes in Argentina allowed researchers to identify negative impacts on graduation rates, college attainment, employment and earnings.
  • Online instruction might help, but don’t count on it to replace regular school. The most careful, comprehensive study of virtual charter schools from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that virtual charter students achieved the equivalent of 180 fewer days of learning in math and 72 fewer days of learning in reading than students in traditional public schools. Of course, these studies examine schools specifically designed for online delivery. Outcomes are likely to be worse under hastily designed district efforts. Additionally, the switch to online instruction will exacerbate inequalities as students from families with low incomes might lack the broadband access and physical space necessary for online learning.
  • An economic downturn would hit families’ and schools’ budgets hard, affecting students, too. Studies have found that school budget cuts lower test scores and college enrollment, particularly for students from families with low incomes. Additionally, Barnum cites studies showing that parental job loss is associated with worse in-school behavior, lower test scores, and higher likelihood of being held back a grade.

Overall, Barnum paints a bleak picture of the pandemic’s impact on children’s education. This crisis will undoubtedly hurt the long-term outlook for North Carolina’s children, particularly those from vulnerable populations. The question is, what do we do about it?

Ultimately, the research points us toward simply redoubling the efforts to create schools that are well-resourced, integrated communities that meet all kids’ basic needs. It means rapid adoption of the investments and new programs outlined in the Leandro consultant’s report necessary to deliver a constitutional education for all of North Carolina’s children. It means aggressively pursuing the shared vision for North Carolina’s public schools that education stakeholders across North Carolina have been demanding and that will allow all children to flourish. And it means vastly strengthening the social safety net to minimize job loss, hunger, financial hardship, and physical and mental health needs.

More specifically, North Carolina lawmakers should consider several strategies: Read more

Commentary, Education

Senate Republican response to Leandro report is way off-base

Since gaining control of the General Assembly in 2011, Senate Republicans have expressed concern for children’s literacy. However, a recent Senate Republican press release indicates that North Carolina’s greatest literacy needs are in the halls of the Legislative Building, where Senate Republicans are unable to comprehend the recommendations of the recently-released Leandro consultant’s report and are unaware of the past 20 years of education research.

The press release claims that increases in school spending under Republican leadership will be sufficient to meet the recommendations of the Leandro consultant’s report. In reality, the Leandro consultant’s report calls for school budget increases that are about 48 times larger than what Republicans claim they will provide over the next eight years.

As the press release shows, North Carolina’s public school budgets have increased by an average rate of about 3.3 percent per year from 2010-11 to 2018-19. The 3.3 percent figure is in nominal terms; it doesn’t account for inflation or enrollment increases. It also somewhat overstates Republican budget efforts, as state spending in 2010-11 was artificially decreased by federal stimulus funding. But let’s stick with their 3.3 percent figure. Read more