The Myth of Under-Funded Public Schools in Poor Counties

Do public schools in North Carolina’s wealthy counties enjoy a funding advantage over the state’s poorer counties?

The conventional wisdom among education “advocates” says that schools in the state’s low-income areas are at a disadvantage because they are forced to cope with fewer resources due to lower funding levels relative to those schools in areas of greater wealth.

A look at some relevant data, however, suggests otherwise.

As the chart below shows, it is in fact the lower-income counties that receive higher levels of per pupil government funding.  The chart plots North Carolina’s Local Education Agencies (LEAs) according to the cumulative, inflation-adjusted per pupil expenditures for a 13-year (1996-7 to 2008-9) time span with the 2009 per capita income for the county in which the LEA is located.

As indicated by the trendline, it is clear that, on average, as the per capita income of residents in a county increases, the level of per pupil spending decreases.

Furthermore, the school districts with the highest levels of per pupil spending are also concentrated in lower-income counties. Specifically, 14 of the 17 school districts above the $110 k line for total per pupil spending are located in counties with per capita incomes below the state average ($610/wk).

The people of North Carolina deserve an honest debate about public education. Dispelling some of the faulty conventional wisdom is a good place to start.

per pupil funding

Per pupil expenditures represent the cumulative inflation-adjusted spending on each student for the thirteen year period from 1996-97 to 2008-09. Data obtained from “How Much Does it Cost to Educate a High School Graduate in Your County?,” by Bob Luebke of the Civitas Institute. The per student cost figures used in this study include local, state and federal support, but reflect normal operating expenses only. Figures do not include the costs of federal school lunch programs, capital expenses, debt service, equipment purchases, transportation costs or the costs of community service programs.

Average per capita income per county was obtained from the Quarterly Census Employment and Wages dataset, Employment Security Commission of North Carolina. Available online at:

The four most extreme outliers were removed – two with extremely high per pupil funding in low income counties, and the two highest per capita income counties with relatively low per pupil funding – in order to make the chart more clear. The removal of these outliers had no significant impact of the dataset’s trendline.

This article was posted in Education by Brian Balfour on September 22, 2010 at 10:13 AM.

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