The Leandro lawsuit was an attempt by residents of some of North Carolina’s lowest wealth counties to require the N.C. General Assembly to ensure the constitutionally-provided educational opportunities for their students. The ongoing case has had mixed results, in my opinion. A commitment to two state flexible funding sources resulted, the low wealth and small county allotments, which should be cause for rejoicing. But a not-so-funny thing happened on the way down the yellow brick road – politics won out over true need.
The small county allotment grew comparatively large, on a per-student basis, due to an influential and passionate former state senator. It makes sense that school districts with very small enrollments face unique challenges that cost money, especially in terms of student transportation and basic staffing and operating costs of smaller schools, but the funding is 2.5 times the funding for low wealth on a per-student basis. Twenty-seven counties having fewer than 4,000 traditional public school students share $42.87 million in small county funding, and it averages providing $748 per student of supplemental funding. Of those 27 counties, 19 also receive low wealth funding.
The low wealth allotment has more total state funding ($204.15 million), but somebody or somebodies decided that inclusion was more important than targeting the truly lowest wealth counties. The funding is provided, assuming certain conditions are met, to the counties with property wealth less than the statewide average property wealth. Because North Carolina has the I-85/I-40 corridor counties with the lion’s share of the property wealth in the state, 68 of the 100 counties have below the average property wealth, while only 32 counties have more than the average property wealth. That is one of the problems with using statistical average. To have included the bottom half of the counties in property wealth, the statistic used should have been the median property wealth. The $204.15 million provides an average supplemental funding amount of $291 per student for the 68 eligible counties.
One need only look at the Public School Forum of North Carolina’s 2016 Local Finance Study (Tables 2 and 3) to recognize that the result of spreading the total low wealth dollars among 68 counties is that many of the lowest wealth counties remain the lowest funded counties after receiving low wealth funds. In terms of county funding per student, Columbus, Hoke, and Robeson counties are among the lowest 10 funded school districts in the state (ranked 95th, 98th, and 99th respectively out of 100), are among the 10 lowest counties in property tax wealth per student, and all have more than 4,000 students. After adding the state low wealth allotment, all three districts remain among the lowest 10 funded school districts in the state (ranked 96th, 100th, and 98th respectively). The low wealth allotment should be targeted specifically to avoid this result. Especially since the county in which Leandro originated (Hoke) is still ranked last in operational funding per student after receiving its current share of low wealth funds!
This result is inexcusable. We should make sure that we bring the bottom 25 counties in wealth up to the funding level of the 26th ranked county, or the bottom 30 counties up to the level of the 31st ranked county, the number depending on how far the total funding will go.
The real curse in North Carolina in terms of educational opportunities is to live in a low wealth county that has more than 4,000 traditional public school students. The low amount of county funding in places like Columbus, Hoke, and Robeson provides barely enough to operate and maintain the school buildings, and it almost ensures that no charter schools will open in that county (since the charter schools can choose to locate where their county funding will be higher). Then the state supplemental funding does little or nothing to “equalize” educational opportunities unless the county has less than 4,000 traditional public school students.
There is an easy way to make the low wealth allotment more equitable. The N.C. General Assembly would have to recognize that of the 68 counties currently receiving funds, those that are not in the lowest 25-30 deserve/need the current low wealth funding they are receiving and continue their funding at the current levels. Then they need to appropriate the additional funds to bring up the funding of the counties ranked 76-100 to the 75th ranked county, or the counties ranked 71-100 to the funding of the 70th ranked county, whatever they can afford. In the context of a $21+ billion budget, it would not take a lot of additional funding.
In fact, based on the data in the 2016 Local Finance Study in Table 3, bringing counties 76-100 up to the funding level of the county ranked 75th would cost from $3-$440 per student. Doing the math, the total additional state funding cost would be $30.5 million, a 15 percent overall increase in the low wealth funding. Hoke County Schools would receive $3.7 million, Robeson County Schools would receive $5.5 million, and Columbus County Schools would receive $1.9 million of the total additional funding of $30.5 million. Those funds would make a huge difference in educational opportunities in those counties. Not surprisingly, of the 25 counties affected in my proposal, only one has less than 4,000 students and receives small county funding, and that is only because its county funding is significantly below the county’s ability to fund the public schools.