A General Assembly task force has began the daunting work of reviewing how North Carolina spends $9 billion annually on K-12 public schools. The review could lead to more equitable and effective spending, or it could open school funding to all sorts of mischief by Republican leaders who would rather promote “school choice” than improve traditional public schools.
One disappointing development is the decision by Republican leaders to confine the review to how education funds are spent rather than also assessing whether the funding is adequate. Rep. D. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican and co-chair of the joint legislative task force on education finance reform says the group will look at what might change – the funding formula – and avoid assessing actual allocations.
“Adequacy is important,” he says, but “it’s not something we control.” He says it’s equally important that the public have confidence in the way education funds are spent. “I’m going to ensure that we fund students in the best way possible.”
At issue is the design of the state’s so-called “weighted funding” formula. It provides a base amount per student and adds funds to reflect variables such as whether the student is in a low-wealth school district or needs extra instruction. The number of variables has multiplied over the past 20 years. Horn said the task force will look to simplify the formula and correct imbalances that unnecessarily favor some districts and deny others.
“The way we allocate funds has come about because of people playing defense, grandfathering things in and changing things to accommodate an influential legislator,” Horn says. “It’s become sort of a Rube Goldberg system.”
There’s no harm in assessing the system and it’s encouraging to see Horn in a leading role. He is known for being open-minded about improving schools and he intends to hear from all sides in a process he expects to take more than two years to complete. “We’re going to spend a lot of time gathering information,” he says. “We can learn from everyone.”
Years of underfunding
The process will be shadowed by the Republican record on school funding. Since taking control of the General Assembly in 2011, Republican lawmakers have failed to keep up with the needs of a growing population of public school students. Total school funding has increased, but most of the extra spending has gone into required increases in benefits and to try to make up for years of underpaying teachers. That spending hasn’t done much to add more teachers. Meanwhile, most school districts lack textbooks, teacher assistants and school counselors.
An extended look at how inadequate funds are distributed may result in aggravating the funding shortage. Rural legislators may push for a raid on urban school districts’ funding, or the formula could change to provide more money to charter schools, which are already funded with $500 million diverted from traditional public school districts.
Philip Price, a former chief financial officer for the state Department of Public Instruction, says charter schools should be funded separately “rather than pulling money out of a district.” But that seems unlikely given Republican support for adding more charters.
Other than breaking out charter funding, Price doesn’t see a need to substantially alter the state’s weighted funding system. It promotes a fair distribution of funds much better than most states because North Carolina’s K-12 school funding is largely provided by the state. In most states, local districts are responsible for most of their funding, which expands the gap in school funding between affluent and poor districts.
Focus on educational goals
Price says the task force shouldn’t worry so much about how school funds are distributed. It should focus on what goals the funds are intended to support. “The way we distribute money is excellent compared to other states, but we don’t have enough if it and that’s the problem,” he says.
Horn says the task force will consider the effectiveness of school funding in a way that is centered around children, not formulas.
“We need to take a look at how we are distributing money. Is it being distributed fairly and are we getting what we paid for,” Horn says. “Are students’ outcomes improving? The focus needs to be on the students.”
That’s a fine sentiment. But the task force will be weighing a lot of money under the careful watch of a lot of lawmakers. Horn and his fellow task force members will have to work hard to make changes that best serve children, not legislative districts or a school-choice agenda.