Recently I authored an article where I asked: “Do North Carolina schools shortchange poor students?” Because of the disparities in resources between low- and higher-income communities, there is a perception that poor students are shortchanged and additional funding is needed to rectify the problem.
To help answer this question, I referenced a 2015 analysis by Civitas Executive Vice President Brian Balfour. Balfour compared per capita income and per-pupil funding by district and found “no correlation in the data backing the claim that low-income counties receive lower levels of per-pupil funding.”
This article will replicate that analysis but will provide more recent data and focus on higher and lower income areas and specifically how much those communities spend on education.
After analyzing the 20 highest and lowest income districts, we found little evidence to support the claim that low-income counties receive lower levels of per-pupil funding.
20 Highest Per-Capita Income Districts
For the 20 highest per-capita income counties in North Carolina,
- Per capita income ranges from $30K -$37K.
- Average per capita income for the twenty highest per capita income districts is $30,733 (2016), which is about 15 percent higher than the statewide average $26,779.
- Twelve of the highest per capita income districts have incomes of less than $30,000.
Do districts with higher per capita income spend more on schools?
- Average per pupil spending for these districts is $9,835, about 7 percent more than the statewide per pupil average expenditure of $9,172.
- Seven districts spend more than $10,000 per pupil.
- Seven high per-capita income districts also spent less than the statewide average of $9,172.
20 Lowest Per-Capita Income Districts
- Per-capita income ranges from $16,200 to $19,700.
- Average per capita income is $18,352, which is about 69 percent of the average per capita income in North Carolina, $26,779.
- Six school districts have per capita income in excess of $19,000. In eight school districts, residents earn less than the per capita average of $18,352.
Do low-income districts spend less on education?
- Average per pupil spending for the twenty lowest per capita income school districts is $11,113, about 21 percent higher than the statewide average of $9,172.
- Nineteen of the 20 lowest per-capita income school districts spend more than the statewide average of $9,172.
- This includes twelve school districts whose average spending is above $10,000 and one school district that spends more than $17,000 per student.
The attached scatter plot maps per capita income and per-pupil spending by school district. The plot is from an article published earlier by Civitas and uses the same data as used in this analysis. As you can see—contrary to conventional wisdom, a mild negative relationship exists between per capita income and per pupil spending.
The updated analysis finds no evidence to support the assertion that, on the whole, schools in higher income areas spend more than schools in low-income areas. Rather, the opposite seems to be true. Districts in communities with lower per capita rankings, frequently spend more per student than districts in communities that have higher per capita rankings.
What accounts for these findings? Two reasons are worth mentioning. North Carolina public schools receive much of their funding (63 percent in 2016-17) from the state. A high percentage of state dollars tends to tamp down the large funding differences between districts in states whose schools are reliant on the property tax as a source of funding. In addition, many state and federal funding formulas are structured to benefit schools in low-income areas or benefit the populations that such schools frequently serve. These include Federal funds for Title I, special needs and at-risk populations. State funding formulas provide assistance for low wealth schools, disadvantaged populations, and small schools. These funding streams work to lessen the difference in funding between districts.
From the results found here, it’s difficult to assert that poor districts are shortchanged under the current system. That’s not to say the current system of funding schools in North Carolina is perfect. It’s not. It just means claiming the current system of funding public schools in North Carolina shortchanges poor communities is an assertion that lacks substantiation.