North Carolina spends $8.7 billion on K-12 public education. K-12 public education comprises 39 percent of the state budget and is – by far — the largest single expenditure in the state budget.
While there is frequently much discussion about how much money the state spends on K-12 education and how it is divided (i.e., teacher salaries, school supplies etc. etc.); there has been little discussion about the formulas that actual determine spending levels and whether those formulas effectively and efficiently distribute resources. Until now.
On Wednesday lawmakers received a study from the Legislature’s Program Evaluation Division. It wasn’t a great review. The study concluded the way North Carolina funds schools is too complicated, outdated, favors wealthy counties and lacks transparency.
Some of the more notable findings include:
- Some formulas favor wealthy counties. Since higher income counties generally hire more experienced and more qualified teachers, teacher pay allotments favor wealthier counties
- Flexibility vs. Accountability. Calls for increased flexibility have hindered accountability. Counties have transferred over $11 million in monies targeted for disadvantaged, at-risk and limited English proficiency students and used it to pay for non-instructional support personnel.
- Charter School Issues. Formulas used in traditional public schools do not readily translate to public charter schools. Almost half of charter schools receive transportation money for a service they are not required to provide. Moreover, some charter schools receive less money than they should, based on how student membership is calculated.
- Special Needs Students. Funding for special needs students is capped – an action no doubt taken to prevent students from being over-identified. The current flat allotment per student fails to take into account the severity of the disability or the actual number of students.
- Small Counties. Aid for Small Counties (under 3,200 students) appear to come with few strings and not at all related to the unique costs of operating a small school district.
- Complexity. The complexity of the funding system has resulted in a number of schools hiring consultants to make sure they are in compliance and accessing the funds to which they are entitled. Some schools hire consultants to understand the system others can’t afford to and potentially miss out on millions of dollars.
So what’s the solution? The report recommends moving North Carolina to a weighted-student funding model. Such a model provides money based on the number and the type of student (traditional, at-risk, special needs etc..). Weighted student funding is not perfect, but it’s a better option over the current system.
The fact is too few people understand how school formulas work and their interactions. Worse yet is that even fewer people would stand up and say we have a good system of funding schools. It will be a heavy lift; but when you spend $9 billion shouldn’t we make sure what we’re doing is efficient and effective?
About a decade ago, the legislature was poised to address the same topic. A committee was established and a report and recommendations to strengthen our funding system was drafted. If I recollect correctly, it was well received by folks on both sides of the aisle. Then the recession hit; and the report – and the topic – has been on the shelf ever since.
The time is right to make the changes. We can’t wait another ten years.