Spending gap widens between rich and poor school districts in North Carolina

Educators discuss the 2019 Local School Finance Study released Feb. 19 by the Public School Forum of NC.

The disparity between the amount of local money urban school districts in North Carolina spend on students and what their poorer, rural district spends continues to grow, according to a new study released Tuesday by the Public School Forum of North Carolina.

According to the Forum’s 2019 Local School Finance Study, the state’s 10 highest spending counties spent an average of $3,200 per student compared to $755 by the 10 lowest spending counties.

That’s a $2,445 difference per student and the largest gap since the Forum began tracking the figure in 1987.

The new study examined data from the 2016-17 school year.

It found that Orange County, which includes Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, spends the most, $5,025 per pupil. And Swain County spends the least at $425 per pupil.

The previous study, which looked at data from the 2015-16 school year, showed a smaller spending gap of $2,364 between the 10 highest spending urban districts and the 10 lowest spending rural districts.
The 10 urban districts spent an average of $3,103 per student that year compared to $739 for rural districts.

The Forum is a Raleigh-based nonpartisan organization that focuses on improving educational outcomes for North Carolina’s children.

Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Forum, said the data show the state needs a more equitable funding mechanism for low-wealth schools.

“If we’re going to take on this big task of overhauling and changing the way we fund schools, it is our belief that we should do more than simply find a more efficient way of distributing what we just showed you is inadequate funding across the state,” Poston said.

Taxable resources drive spending

The amount a county is able to spend on education is driven by its taxable resources.

The states 10 wealthiest counties have nearly $1.9 million in taxable real estate wealth per child, which is more than five times the $386,873 per child in the 10 poorest counties.

Wealthier counties with more taxable resources can generate significant revenue while keeping tax rates low.

Poorer counties struggle to keep up because fewer taxable resources mean higher taxes that generate fewer dollars than wealthier counterparts.

To illustrate, Patrick Miller, superintendent of Greene County Schools, a small district, low wealth district of fewer than 3,000 students that spends $755 in local dollars per pupil, compared the impact of a one-cent tax increase in Greene County to a penny hike in neighboring Carteret County.

Miller explained that if Greene County commissioners agree to one-cent tax increase, it would generate almost $110,000, which is barely enough money to pay for two teachers.

But a one-cent tax increase in wealthier Carteret County would raise roughly $1.6 million in revenue, Miller said.

“The discrepancies are real,” he said.

Even with $3.5 million in supplemental funds for low-wealth districts, Miller said there is a $9.1 million local per pupil spending gap between Orange County and Greene County.

“That $9.1 million is about 25 percent of my total budget, which is about $34 million to $35 million, so you can see the gap in opportunities my children have versus children in more affluent places,” Miller said. “I’m very sensitive to that and I’m sensitive to the way areas east of Interstate 95 are viewed.”

Miller was part of a panel discussion that took place after the Forum released its report.

The panel also included Kerry Crutchfield, former chief financial Officer, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools; Anthony Jackson, superintendent of Vance County Schools (VCS) and Seth Prevette, CFO of Wilkes County Schools.

Recruitment wars

Low wealth districts are at a great disadvantage when it comes to the recruitment and retention of teachers because they can’t compete with the higher supplements paid in wealthier districts. A supplement is local money districts pay teachers on top of their state salaries.

In Vance County, Jackson said he struggles to keep teachers because of stiff competition from nearby districts such as Wake County Public Schools (WCPS), which can pay much higher supplements.

“The joke with a lot of my superintendent colleagues is that we do a great job of preparing teachers for them,” Jackson said.

He said the districts best teachers only stay a few years before leaving for nearby districts that pay higher supplements. VCS pays a $2,500 supplement compared to about $8,600 for WCPS, Jackson said.

Poston said North Carolina has created a situation where wealthier counties are able to “poach” the best and brightest teachers from low-wealth counties.

“I don’t blame Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg [school districts],” Poston said. “They’re just trying to serve their students, but that’s the system we have.”


Public school advocates to unleash ‘Twitter storm’ in protest of Superintendent Johnson’s private dinner

A group of public schools advocates upset about being uninvited to Superintendent Mark Johnson’s invitation only dinner have new plans for Tuesday.

The advocates are planning to unleash a “Twitter Storm” during the two hour dinner to protest Johnson’s decision to make a “major announcement” about the state’s public education system in a private setting.

Susan Book, an organizer for Save Our Schools NC, said advocates discussed gathering at the Raleigh Convention Center to protest the dinner but decided to tweet about the event instead.

“By having a Tweet Storm, everyone can participate in advocacy,” Book said. “Our teachers, parents, and community members can have a say in what is happening no matter how close or far away from Raleigh they live.”

Johnson has promised a “major announcement” about the state’s public education system during the dinner on Tuesday.

Book and other advocates contend such an announcement should be open to the public.

“For many of us, this doesn’t sit right,” Book said. “A public figure making a public announcement about public school should make the venue public.”

Suzanne Miller, an organizer for N.C. Families for Testing Reform, told N.C. Policy Watch last week that Johnson’s announcement should be made in public.

“If it’s a public announcement about public education, why is it being made behind closed doors?” Miller asked.

Dozens of public education advocates and teachers used Eventbrite to secure tickets for the event, but received email messages from Johnson last week telling them they could not attend.

N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson

Book said the snub from Johnson is one of many.

“[Superintendent] Mark Johnson has continually chosen to stay silent on major issues plaguing public education,” she said. “Parent and teacher advocates alike have tried to sit down and discuss real issues facing their schools but our superintendent rarely responds.”

One Wake County teacher, Kim Mackey wrote an open letter to Johnson after her ticket to the event was “revoked.” Mackey will attend the event thanks to an invitee who gave up their seat for her.

Drew Elliott, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Instruction, told NC Policy Watch that Mackey was one of about 25 to 30 uninvited individuals who signed up for the event when the registration page was shared on social media.

Elliot added that half of the guest will be educators.

Johnson’s “major announcement” has fueled speculation that North Carolina will be one of five states selected for a new K-12 initiative funded by the conservative Koch network.

Book hopes that’s not Johnson’s big announcement.

“I’d love the announcement to be a restoration of teaching assistants or investment in textbooks,” Book said.

Commentary, Education

Report: Low wages vexing early childhood education in North Carolina

Earlier this week, the N.C. Justice Center’s Budget & Tax Center released a report analyzing the role that public investments in North Carolina’s early childhood workforce could play in supporting our state’s goals of delivering high-quality learning experiences to our youngest children.

The report highlights the realities low-wage work presents for early childhood educators and students, and promotes a two-generation approach to address these grim realities.

According to the report, North Carolina’s childhood system faces two major barriers:

(1) Parents simply cannot afford to pay rising child care costs with stagnate and low wages.

(2) Early childhood educators can’t make ends meet and deliver a quality learning environment for each child on their low wages.

North Carolina has made commitments towards providing high quality early childhood programs. However, the state continues to fall short in ensuring early childhood educators can provide for themselves and their families while also providing high-quality care to the state’s children.

If the benefits of North Carolina’s early childhood system are to be fully realized, these educators’ wages must match the importance and long-term impacts of their work. Only then can they cover the costs of their every-day needs, including child care, and put their energy and time toward the education of their students.

One place to begin investing in early childhood students and their educators is existing compensation and professional development programs such as the Infant Toddler Educator AWARD$ program, the Child Care WAGE$ program, and the Teacher Education and Compensation Helps (T.E.A.C.H.) program. If brought to scale statewide, these tools can be designed to ensure early childhood educators’ compensation aligns with their credentials and with that of others in the education profession.

North Carolina has a robust infrastructure in place to support the early childhood workforce and strengthen the quality of early childhood programs. A focus on adequately and equitably funding that infrastructure will ensure that each child is able to thrive and that the workers — often parents themselves — can as well.

Martine Aurelien is a policy fellow at the N.C. Justice Center’s Budget & Tax Center.


Pay-as-you go plan for school construction gets nod from Senate committee

State Sen. Harry Brown enthusiastically endorsed a pay-as-you go plan for school construction, telling senate colleagues this week that the proposal could vastly improve the state’s bottom line.

“I will argue that nine to 10 years from now when this ends, we will as a state be in, probably, the best financial shape the state’s ever been in,” said Brown, an Onslow County Republican.

The plan Brown touted is Senate Bill 5, a school construction bill titled “Building North Carolina’s Future.” It’s sponsored by Brown and Sens. Kathy Harrington (R-Gaston) and Joyce Krawiec (R-Forsyth).

The proposal is an alternative to a $1.9 billion bond referendum backed by Republican House Speaker Tim Moore.

Gov. Roy Cooper and other Democratic lawmakers also support a referendum.

Brown contends the pay-as-you go option would save the state $1.2 billion in interest payments over 30 years and put money in school district’s hands much sooner than a statewide bond referendum.

“We think our plan is the right way to go because it dedicates more money faster and for less cost,” Brown said during the chamber’s appropriation committee meeting on Wednesday.

SB 5 would raise about $6 billion for K-12, community colleges and the university system, with each receiving $2 billion for construction and renovation projects.

More than $8 billion in construction and renovation needs have been identified for North Carolina’s K-12 schools alone.

To pay for SB 5, the state would use money from the State Capital and Infrastructure Fund. The Fund currently receives 4 percent of state revenue to pay down debt and for capital projects for state government and the UNC System.

Under the plan, the amount of state revenue would be bumped up to 4.5 percent.

The bill was unanimously approved by the committee and will go to the Senate rules committee next week.

Democratic committee members peppered Brown with questions before eventually voting to send the bill forward.

Senate Democratic Whip Jay Chauduri, (D-Wake), wanted to know how lawmakers would ensure future General Assemblies honor the legislation, particularly in an economic downturn.

“Compared to a board issuance that would guarantee dollars to be allocated over the next 10 years, what guarantees can be made for these dollars going forward, especially given the fact that we have a projected $1.2 billion structural deficit projected by our fiscal research staff?” Chauduri asked.

Brown said there would be a lot of public pressure on lawmakers to continue funding the construction because the “need is there.”

“If you pass the bond, you’ll have the debt service that you’ll have to pay and if a recession comes you’re going to rely on the rainy day fund to address the shortfalls as well,” Brown said. “I really don’t see much of a difference in trying to figure out if you’re going to fund it or not.’

Sen. Gladys Robinson, (D-Guilford), wanted to know how many schools would be served in the initial allocation.

“We have great need across the state and we are delayed in term of building and repairing, especially with safety issues,” Robinson said.

Brown didn’t have the answer but said money would be awarded to the neediest schools first.

Senate Democratic Leader Dan Blue (D-Wake) took issue with Brown’s claim that SB 5 would help get money to school district’s sooner.

“If you pass a bond issue, regardless of the size of that bond, once you issue it, all of the money is immediately available,” Blue said, noting that SB 5 calls for money to be allocated over 10 years.

Brown explained that schools would get the money quicker because a bond would take two years to get on the ballot and passed. He said it would take even longer to distribute the money.

Under SB 5, Brown said money would become available this year.

Sen. Don Davis, (D- Greene) asked if it’s possible to do both, SB 5 and a bond referendum.

“What harm would be done to pursue “Building North Carolina’s Future” as well as some type of bond proposal whether it’s the one that exists or not?,” Davis asked.

Brown replied that it would be unfair to ask voters to support a new bond two years after they approved a $2 billion referendum.

“We’re just coming off the passage of a bond, and now to turnaround and pass another bond two years later and put basically $4 billion in debt on the state in a two or three year period puts the state in a tough position as far as debt service goes,” Brown said.

Sen. Bill Rabon, (R-New Hanover), said lawmakers can’t assume that a bond referendum would pass.

Rabon said SB 5 is the surest way to address the needs that lawmakers all agree exist.

“If the economy happens to downturn between now and the time to vote, we may be shooting ourselves in the foot,” Rabon said. “We have a sure thing here that I think has a lot of merit.”


Public schools supporters feel snubbed by Superintendent Mark Johnson’s invitation only event

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

Suzanne Miller has a general admission ticket to State Superintendent Mark Johnson’s big dinner event on Feb. 19, but she still can’t go.
Miller, an organizer for N.C. Families for Testing Reform, received an email Wednesday explaining that attendance is by invitation only.
So, the ticket Miller scored last month on won’t get her through the doors of the Raleigh Convention Center where Johnson promises to make a “major announcement” about the state’s education system.
“If it’s a public announcement about public education, why is it being made behind closed doors?” Miller asked.

Miller said the page didn’t mention that an invitation would be needed when she signed up to attend the event.

Susan Book, of Save Our Schools NC, also took issue with the invitation only event.
“There are quite of few teaches I know who signed up but are not going to be able to go,” Book said. “We support public education, so why can’t we be in the room? If you’re going to make a major announcement about public education, there shouldn’t be an invite list. It doesn’t sit right with me.”
In an email message to those who received tickets through but no official invitation, Johnson said there isn’t room to accommodate everyone who wants to attend the event.
“Due to the response from invited educators, policy makers, and philanthropic and community leaders, we are at capacity,” Johnson wrote. “We regret that we will not be able to provide you a seat for the dinner.”
Johnson could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.
The invitation to Johnson’s event notes that no tax money will be spent on the dinner and program.
A spokesman for the superintendent declined to say who is paying for the event.
But Johnson’s “major announcement” has fueled speculation that North Carolina will be one of five states selected for a new K-12 initiative funded by the conservative Koch network.
Brian Hooks, president of the Charles Koch Foundation and the Charles Koch Institute, told reporters attending a fundraiser and retreat in California that the initiative would operate in five states and affect 15 million students.
Hooks said the initiative includes investments in curriculum to better support teachers and students, new technology to help families find the right options for their kids and public policy reforms that begin to get at the root causes of challenges in the nation’s education system.