- Keith Poston claims disinvestment in public schools is ongoing and tied to more state funding for questionable parental choice programs
- State funding for K-12 education has increased from $7.5 billion (2011-12) to $9 billion in 2017-18
- Budget problem areas like textbooks and school supplies usually derive from how local school boards have made local spending decisions
- Public money for Opportunity Scholarship Program comprises about one-half of one percent of the K-12 public school budget
In a recent column in the News & Observer Keith Poston, President and Executive Director of the Public-School Forum, notes that budget problems in K-12 schools are happening at a time when more and more state dollars are being devoted to what he believes to be questionable school choice programs. Poston’s claim is false and a casualty of bad numbers, faulty thinking and contorted logic.
Poston claims disinvestment in public education has been ongoing and is particularly troubling in certain areas. If you look at budget numbers however, you certainly find a different story. State appropriations for K-12 education have increased every year Republicans have had majorities in the State House and Senate.
K-12 education budgets have increased from $7.5 billion in 2011-12 to $9 billion in 2017-18[i]. The most recently passed budget represents an increase of 3.5 percent over the previous year. Over the time period 2011-12 to 2015-16, total K-12 expenditures increased from $11.8 billion to $12.7 billion. Over the same time period, inflation-adjusted per pupil expenditures have increased slightly from $5,720 to $5,724 (2016 dollars).[ii] While per pupil expenditures seem only to be holding steady, such trends aren’t consistent with the idea that state government is disinvesting in public education.
Teacher raises have been a significant part of the budget for the past four years. The 2017-18 state budget also includes $311 million for teacher raises and increases for health and retirement benefits.[iii]
Poston says too much money is being diverted from public schools to private, unaccountable for-profit schools. He then says public school spending – minus spending on salaries — has only increased by 1.82 percent since 2008-09, clearly implying a link between the two.
This is a perfect example of slicing the data until you get the outcome you want. Why did Poston pick 2008-09? It’s the highwater mark for spending for K-12 education over the last decade. For the next two years, under Democratic leadership in the Governor’s office and the General Assembly, K-12 education absorbed budget reductions of approximately 10 and 2 percent[iv]. In 2011-12, K-12 budgets started to slowly increase. Picking the highwater mark for funding will guarantee a bad comparison point since it’s taken eight years to return funding levels to the previous highs.
Poston notes that over the last five years, public funding of for-profits private schools has increased 146 percent. I don’t know how he arrives at those figures. Of course, the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) has grown tremendously from 1,200 to 6,200 students.[vii] The budget for the popular program is slated to expand to $45 million in FY 2017-18. Poston says such programs divert money that would otherwise go to the public schools. But how much money?
OSP is by far the largest private school choice program in North Carolina. The $45 million budget is significant and growing[viii]. When measured against the K-12 public school budget for North Carolina, however, OSP comprises about one-half of one percent.
Against this budget backdrop Poston makes his case for public disinvestment by pointing to the fallout associated with K-3 class size requirements and how it is pinching school district budgets. Of course, he fails to report that legislation (HB-13) was passed earlier this year that provides schools more flexibility to meet class size requirements. The legislation also allows many local elementary school students the chance to continue taking “enhancement courses” such as art, music, technology and physical education.
Poston highlights shortages of classroom supplies and textbooks in Wake County as yet another sign of public disinvestment. It may be true that textbook budgets aren’t what they were several years ago, but there are reasons.
First, the legislature moved public schools toward more and more electronic materials. This has decreased demand for traditional textbooks. As a way to better address the costs of textbooks and instructional supplies, in 2014 the General Assembly gave local school districts the ability to use other funds to purchase textbooks and supplies.[ix] So, pointing solely at the budget for textbooks or materials fails to tell the whole story of how local schools can address these costs.
What’s important to note here is that these decisions are fundamentally local in nature and are best made at the local level. In the case that Poston illustrates, the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) asked for an additional $45 million from County Commissioners to cover costs they believed were not met in their budget request. County Commissioners provided an additional $21 million to WCPSS.[x] After learning the additional funding would not be provided, WCPSS chose their priorities and made decisions regarding the purchase of textbooks and school supplies. While state funding is involved, so is local discretion regarding how funds will be used. It is certainly easy for Poston to criticize state government rather than 115 different school boards, but in concentrating on state government, he’s failing to talk to those who make the decisions.
In the second part of this article, we will address Poston’s claims that many private schools that receive public funding lack accountability and are clouded by a “for-profit” motive.
[i] Highlights of North Carolina State Public School Budget for specific years, published by North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. Available online at: http://www.ncpublicschools.org/fbs/resources/data/. See: Joint Conference Committee Report on the Base, Capital and Expansion budgets for Senate Bill 257, June 19, 2017. Available online at: http://www.ncleg.net/Sessions/2017/Budget/2017/conference_committee_report_2017_06_19.pdf
[ii] Figures provided by Statistical Profile Online, published by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. Figures available at: http://apps.schools.nc.gov/ords/f?p=1:1. Inflation adjustments made at US Inflation Calculator. Available at: http://www.usinflationcalculator.com/
[iv] See Highlights of the North Carolina Public School Budget, 2017. Published by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. Available online at: http://www.ncpublicschools.org/docs/fbs/resources/data/highlights/2017highlights.pdf
[v] Final Budget Comparison, 2017-18 State Budget, North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, Departmernt of Financial and Business Services. Available online at: http://www.ncpublicschools.org/fbs/budget/
[vii] See Annual Report of the State Education Assistance Authority for specific years
[viii]See Session 2016-94, House Bill 1030
[ix] See 2016-17 Allotment Policy Manual. Available online at: http://www.ncpublicschools.org/docs/fbs/allotments/general/2016-17policymanual.pdf
[x] Wake County schools get less than half the increase requested in local money. News & Observer, June 19, 2017, Available online at: http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/counties/wake-county/article157037189.html