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Census Bureau: NC near the bottom nationally in per-pupil spending

Report reveals the toll that a decade of disinvestment has taken

According to a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau, North Carolina continues to lag near the bottom of the pack (44th) nationally when it comes to per-pupil spending on K-12 schools.

In 2020, North Carolina spent $9,958 per student on public education — more than $3,500 (or 26.2%) below the national average of $13,494. Only seven states — Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arizona, Utah and Idaho came in lower. And the advantage over Florida and  Tennessee was very small — just $21 and $62 respectively.

North Carolina’s per-pupil spending was even significantly outpaced by states like West Virginia ($12,375)  South Carolina ($11,532), and Alabama ($10,116). North Carolina came in $996 (or 9%) below the average reported for 17 southern states.

When one adjusts for inflation, the 2020 figure also represented a real dollar decline from the amount our state spent a decade ago, at the start of Republican rule at the North Carolina General Assembly. The per-pupil figure for North Carolina in 2010 — the year GOP majorities assumed control of the legislature — was $8,409. At the time, this was $2,206 (or 20.7%) below the national average of $10,615.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator, $8409 in September of 2010 was worth $10,020 in September of 2020 — $62 more than what the state actually spent.

U.S. School System Current Spending Per Pupil by Region: Fiscal Year 2020[Source: U.S. Census Bureau]

In other words, not only did the state fall farther behind the rest of the country during the past decade, it actually suffered an absolute decline in the total inflation-adjusted per-pupil investment.

And, of course, this decline took place during a period in which North Carolina was subject to a constitutional mandate to provide every child in the state with access to a sound basic education — something that repeated court orders in the landmark Leandro case have determined requires significantly larger public investments.

The bottom line: While appropriations obviously don’t explain everything, it’s hard not to see this new report as just the latest in a long line of damning evidence that North Carolina is failing its children — especially in this era of large budget surpluses that would make it relatively easy to raise investments to (or even well-above) the national average.

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