New study shows growing gap in school funding between wealthy and poor counties

EducationA new study shows the gap in school funding between North Carolina’s wealthiest and poorest counties continues to grow.

The report, published Tuesday by the Public School Forum of N.C., an education policy group in Raleigh, shows that in 2013-2014 (the  most recent data available in the report) the state’s ten highest spending counties doled out an average of $57,497 more per classroom than the ten lowest-spending counties.

Download a copy of the report here. 

That number marks an increase of $739 over the previous year, and it’s 36 percent higher than the gap reported ten years ago in the state. The Public School Forum also points out the startling fact that Orange County alone spends about the same amount of the bottom six counties combined.

From the Forum’s statement:

“The trend lines are clear – our poorest counties continue to fall further behind our wealthier counties in terms of resources available to their local schools,” said Forum President and Executive Director Keith Poston. “Even though the ten poorest counties taxed themselves at nearly double the rate of the ten wealthiest counties, the revenue they could generate was substantially lower.”

The large spending gap exists primarily because of the variation in property wealth across the state, which in large part determines how much local revenue can be generated to support public schools.

The report also includes one startling graph that shows how, in 2013-2014, school systems in affluent Orange County dished out more than $4,000 per student, the most of any school system in North Carolina. Compare that to places like Swain County, a relatively low-wealth county in western North Carolina that spent just $383 per student.

The average local spending per student was about $1,500, the report said.

Many education advocates have pointed out that, with state lawmakers passing budgets that slashed millions from school officials’ budget requests, local governments have been forced to pick up the slack. Counties with greater wealth, and greater taxable resources, are clearly more suited for the task, they say.

The report adds that North Carolina’s model for funding schools is a changing one.

The nearly century-old division of state and local responsibility for school funding still shapes the way North Carolina pays for public education today, with 63 percent of instructional expenditures coming from the state and 97.6 percent of capital expenses paid at the local level. However, the division has eroded somewhat, with counties funding 18.3 percent of principal and assistant principal positions, 6.8 percent of teachers, 9.4 percent of teacher assistants, and 20.4 percent of professional instructional support personnel; and with the state paying 2.1 percent of capital expenses.

Considering local expenditures on programs and personnel in 2013-14, the ten counties that spent the most per student averaged $2,916 per student compared to the ten that spent the least, which averaged $705 per student. That represents a gap of $2,211. Sixty counties are below the state average of $1,500.

The Public School Forum has been publishing its report, which isolates local spending from state and federal spending, for more than 25 years.

Since then, the group said that two trends  have only “deepened over time.”

First, wealthier counties are able to spend more on schools while simultaneously making less taxing effort. Because wealthier counties have more taxable resources, they can keep taxes low while still generating significant revenues. Conversely, counties with fewer taxable resources need to make greater taxing effort to support their schools. Second, there is a widening gap between counties with many taxable resources and those with few, and as a result, a widening gap in counties’ school spending patterns.

“Policy decisions at the state level have narrowed the gap by providing additional funds for the state’s smallest and lowest-wealth counties,” Poston said. “However, even with these important, positive policy steps, investments in North Carolina schools still vary dramatically by zip code.”

Poston continued: “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, an unsustainable model if we expect to grow and prosper as a state.”

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New study shows growing gap in school funding between wealthy and poor counties