The narrative of public schools in low-income areas being starved of resources is well worn and unquestioned in education policy circles. School districts located in counties whose residents average lower incomes are said to have smaller budgets than their more well-off counterparts.
For instance, an Education Week article last year lamented that students in low-income areas “not only suffer from lack of resources at home, but their schools must also scrape by on the minimum.”
Closer to home, the far-left NC Policy Watch declaring that “Low-income students are not trapped in failing schools. They are trapped in poverty and severely underfunded and understaffed public schools.”
Is this narrative true in North Carolina?
Different states have varying funding formulas for their public schools, and many other states’ funding is tied to local revenue sources more so than North Carolina. In those cases, there may be a correlation between lower incomes and lower school funding.
The relevant question, however, for the purpose of this article is: Do schools in low-income areas of North Carolina receive lower levels of funding than schools in higher income areas?
To answer this question, we can compare two data points: total per pupil funding by school district and county per capita income. Funding includes local, state and federal sources.
These data points were compiled and plotted on the chart below. As you can see, one thing is certain: there is no correlation in the data backing the claim that low-income counties receive lower levels of per-pupil funding.
Indeed, if any trend can be detected, it is that low-income districts tend to receive higher levels of per-pupil funding than their higher-income colleagues. Many Lower income districts receive additional funding from the state through a variety of formulas designed to bring greater equity to school funding and address some of the challenges of lower-income districts. Such districts also receive significant funds from the Federal government through Title I for low income and special needs children.
Average total per pupil spending for the 100 school districts is $9,251. Average per capita income for the 100 counties is $34,425.
As shown by the trendline, as the level of per-pupil funding rises, the level of county per-capita income actually falls. Higher school funding levels are associated with lower county incomes.
Hyde County received the highest per-pupil level of funding with more than $16,600 per student, but its per capita income of $32,729 is below the state average. The second-highest recipient of per student funding is Terrell County with more than $15,600 per pupil, but that county’s per capita income is under $30,000 – well below the state average. These two examples are indicative of the overall data showing no correlation linking high-income areas with higher levels of school funding.
More findings from the data include:
- Poor counties receive more school funding: Out of the 20 poorest counties (as measured by per-capita income), 15 received more than the state average in total funding per student.
- The 20 poorest counties averaged total school funding of $10,000 per student – eight percent above the state average.
- Higher-income counties receive lower levels of school funding: Out of the 20 highest-income counties, only 6 received funding above the state average.
- Average per student total funding for the 20 highest-income counties was $8,954, below the state average and more than 10 percent less than the funding levels of the 20 poorest counties.
Arguments about why schools in lower-income areas may need more funding are separate to the point of this article. The data presented here are useful only to evaluate district per student funding levels compared to area income levels.
The narrative that schools in low-income areas are starved for funding runs counter to the actual data, at least in the aggregate. While the data presented here does not enable us to draw any firm conclusions, it is certainly sufficient to raise some new questions regarding public school funding while allowing us to put to rest the progressive liberal talking point about schools in low-income areas generally receiving lower levels of funding relative to more well-off counties.
Garrett Daniel contributed the research for this article.
 North Carolina Department of Public Instruction; Statistical Profile, Table A7 – Current Expense Expenditures by Source of Funds. Available online at: http://apps.schools.nc.gov/pls/apex/f?p=1:113:0::NO:::
The chart shows data from the 100 school districts that represent an entire county; municipal districts were omitted for consistency with the income data.
 U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis; Interactive Chart CA1-Personal Income Summary, by County. Available online at: http://www.bea.gov/iTable/index_regional.cfm
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