Commentary, Education

General Assembly’s latest spending proposal fails to meet schools’ basic needs

This week offered the General Assembly an opportunity to address two glaring needs in our public schools:

  1. Making progress towards delivering every child the education they are owed under our constitution, as required under the long-running Leandro court case; and
  2. Helping schools meet the increased costs of operating under the COVID pandemic.

In both cases, they have fallen well short of what this moment requires.

Earlier this week, we published analysis showing the extent to which the Governor’s budget proposal addresses Leandro. Now, the General Assembly has released its own spending plan, a proposed committee substitute for HB 1105. Not surprisingly, it does little, if anything, to try to provide students with the education they are owed under our constitution.

It is important to note that neither the Governor’s plan, nor the General Assembly’s, provide the sustained recurring investment necessary to deliver a sound basic education. But the one-time funding under the Governor’s spending plan potentially provided a bridge for building sustained investments in the next legislative session. Unfortunately, the General Assembly couldn’t even muster a short-term fix.

The General Assembly also gets a failing grade for addressing schools’ pandemic-related operating costs. The State Board of Education presented its additional funding needs last week. The Governor’s budget proposal satisfied nearly all of the State Board’s request. The General Assembly’s plan, however, falls well short.

In addition to inadequate funding, the General Assembly’s plan includes expansion of school choice schemes that will make it more difficult for traditional, inclusive public schools to meet their students’ needs. The plan would expand funding for North Carolina’s two virtual charter schools, despite their being consistently among the worst-performing in the state. The General Assembly also wants to expand eligibility for the state’s three voucher programs, largely by opening these programs to students who were already planning on attending a private school.

The lone bright spot in the General Assembly’s plan is a provision that would hold schools harmless for COVID-related enrollment decreases. This well overdue measure would certainly help our schools and deserves a stand-alone vote.

Ultimately, this spending proposal is par for the course for this General Assembly. They continue to pair a series of half-measures that fall short of meeting our state’s needs with toxic, controversial proposals that would benefit the donor class at the expense of regular North Carolinians. Come November, we’ll see if this approach continues to have success politically. In the meantime, however, we can all recognize that it’s an abysmal strategy for meeting people’s needs.

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

Commentary, Education

How the governor’s budget proposal would advance a sound basic education

Despite fits and starts over the years, North Carolina lawmakers have consistently failed to provide children with the sound basic education that they are owed under our state constitution. Since the Leandro court case was filed in 1994, the courts have consistently found the state falling short of meeting this basic obligation.

The December 2019 publication of the Leandro consultant’s report marked an important turning point by offering lawmakers a clear pathway to delivering children the education they are owed. The report outlines a series of investments and reforms needed to deliver a constitutionally-compliant public school system by the 2027-28 school year.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed things. While our state constitution makes no exceptions for delivering basic rights during a pandemic, the Leandro parties agreed to a short-term plan for the 20-21 school year that was dramatically pared down from the recommendations of the Leandro consultant’s report. Whereas the consultant’s report recommended increasing early childhood and public school budgets by $1 billion this year, the short-term action plan called for only $431 million in new spending this year.

With the release of Gov. Cooper’s 20-21 budget proposal, we have our first look at the extent to which lawmakers are prioritizing the delivery of a sound basic education against the other challenges faced across the state. The table below compares the short-term plan submitted to the courts in June against the governor’s proposed budget.

From a total dollar standpoint, the governor’s plan falls a bit short of meeting the funding goals outlined in the short-term action plan.

For those hoping the state will make progress towards meeting its constitutional obligations under Leandro this year, there are two additional concerns with the governor’s plan.

First, all appropriations under the governor’s plan are nonrecurring. The money Gov. Cooper would provide to public schools would go away at the end of the school year. That means that the plan – even if adopted by the General Assembly – would represent just a one-year bandage rather than a sustainable, long-term investment. While the additional funding under the governor’s plan would certainly help for this school year, it will not help long-term planning. Nonrecurring would leave us back at step zero next year.

Second, the governor’s plan uses two revenue sources to fund its Leandro activities: state General Fund dollars and federal Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF). It is unclear whether federal guidelines would permit using this revenue source for the actions detailed under the governor’s budget. These funds must be used for expenses incurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, providing a sound basic education is a long-term obligation independent of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is substantial room for interpretation here, but it seems hard to argue that something like “expanding support and mentoring for first-year teachers” is a new expense incurred due to the pandemic.

Ultimately, the governor’s proposal would do little to help the state make real progress towards providing every child in this state with the education they are owed under our state constitution. Largely, this is because the General Assembly’s poor tax and budget have left the state with little money and glaring needs. Partly, this is because the governor is unwilling to propose a tax increase during a recession. All told, it leaves lawmakers with few good options. Regardless, meeting our constitutional obligations requires sustained, long-term investments, not short-term band-aids.

With the General Assembly all but certain not to provide such investment, it appears increasingly unlikely the state will make meaningful progress toward meeting its constitutional obligations under Leandro this year.

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

Commentary, Education

Legislature must act to hold school budgets harmless for COVID-related enrollment decreases

For the second year running, the General Assembly has left town without fulfilling a basic role of state governance: passing an updated budget bill to meet the needs of North Carolinians. What this means for our public schools is that – at least initially – they will once again be operating under a budget that is essentially unchanged from Fiscal Year 2018-19.

School finances, however, are far from safe. Unless the General Assembly acts within the next few months, COVID-related enrollment decreases could decimate the state budgets for districts and charter schools.

At issue are state laws and State Board of Education policies that mandate the reduction of school district and charter school budgets if enrollment falls short of anticipated levels. There’s substantial evidence that enrollment may drop precipitously this school year. A recent survey from Elon University found that 29% of respondents preferred full-time remote learning over in-person or hybrid models and the state’s nonpublic education system’s website crashed earlier this month, apparently due to a surge of parents applying to home school their children. If enrollments crater, so will school budgets, jeopardizing not just the education, but the safety of our students.

Under normal conditions, there is some logic to adjusting school budgets mid-year based on enrollment data. School budgets are based partially on projected enrollment figures. In a normal year, some of those projections will be high and some will be low. The current laws allow the state to reduce budgets in districts or schools where projections were too high and re-allocate those funds to districts or schools where projections were too low.

That line of logic falls apart, however, in the face of a pandemic when all of our schools are facing substantial enrollment decreases. Current law will create large mid-year cuts to school budgets. Barring additional action, this money won’t be redeployed to meet other vital needs, but instead sit unused in state coffers.

State leaders have been aware of this issue since they returned to Raleigh in late April to appropriate federal funds and make other changes to school laws necessitated by the pandemic. However, they failed to make the changes necessary to hold school budgets harmless for pandemic-related enrollment decreases. They again failed to act when they returned to Raleigh in June.

Luckily, there is still time to act. Enrollment-based budget adjustments are not made until the after the first full month of school. Still, lawmakers should act soon to provide district and charter school leaders – who all find themselves in impossible positions – with one less thing to worry about. A little budget stability will go a long way towards helping school planning through a volatile, uncertain period.

Below is a more detailed description of how enrollment changes impact state funding of our schools. Read more

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.