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Governor’s education commission looks at school funding

Orange County spends more per student locally than the seven counties that spend the least per-student in the state combined, according to the Public School Forum of North Carolina.

A commission of education stakeholders across agencies and industries delved into this funding reality and others Tuesday. The Governor’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education is studying how to ensure a “sound basic education” for all students — a constitutional mandate the ongoing Leandro lawsuit ruled the state failed to meet.

“How are we going to finance making sure that our schools keep up and making sure we’ve got a qualified teacher in every classroom, and making sure we’ve got a qualified principal in every school, and making sure these schools in smaller and poorer counties get the resources they need?” said Governor Cooper, who stopped by the meeting in the afternoon. “The question is where are we going to put it on our priority list.”

The commission’s second meeting after its launch in December focused on both the adequacy of overall education funding and the distribution of public school funding across the state. Karen Halwey Miles, CEO and president of national nonprofit Education Resource Strategies, compared the state’s funding system with others from around the country. Miles said the state should embrace the flexibility given to it by the federal government to fund schools in a smart way.

“States have more power to do good and to do bad than ever before with the recent changes in (the Every Student Succeeds Act) … North Carolina is in a really particular point in its history,” Miles said. 

Miles shared data on teacher salaries, student performance, and the distribution of funding across districts. She said adequacy is the foundation for excellence, equity, and efficiency. 

“Always we need to put in front: can we use the dollars we have to buy what we need?” Miles said. “And in this case, in North Carolina, I would argue the dollars are not structured in ways that you’re buying what you need to ensure excellence.”

According to data Miles shared, North Carolina’s per-pupil funding is in the bottom six in the country and declined by 10 percent — two times more than nationwide funding — from 2009 to 2014. The state’s average teacher salary, adjusted for inflation, has declined by eight percent in three decades and ranks in the bottom five in the nation. North Carolina has worse working conditions for teachers than most states and a higher teacher turnover than the national median. According to Education Resource Strategies’ findings, the state has a large gap in education funding between districts when compared with other states. Districts’ levels of poverty throughout the state correlate with low academic achievement. There are some exceptions, Miles noted.

“We see that those schools that are really successful are, even if they don’t offer those services, they have structures, processes, and teams that are acknowledging the whole child, if you will, that are paying attention to where children are coming in and what they need,” she said.

Miles said the most effective systems in the country prioritize teacher collaboration, personalized time and attention for students who lag academically, and meeting the non-academic needs of children with community partners.

Keith Poston, executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, furthered the conversation around the challenges high-poverty districts face through a presentation of the forum’s recent report on local school funding.

Poston said wealthier districts like Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Wake, and Orange are able to provide their teachers with more than $7,000 in pay through local funding. At the same time, he said there are six districts that are unable to pay teachers any local supplement.  

“You can sit here in Wake County and there are eight or nine, 10 counties within less than an hour drive that all have those kinds of differences in dollars,” Poston said. “And so what’s happening is the local districts are actually feeling a lot of pressure to keep up with the higher-level counties.”

Vance County Schools Superintendent Anthony Jackson shared his struggle to attract and retain high-quality teachers when they could make more in wealthier districts or out-of-state. 

“We spend our resources training them, getting them ready, and the big joke at the superintendents’ meeting is, I prepare great teachers for neighboring districts, because they can come and coach,” Jackson said. “That’s not a good business model after a while.” 

Miles said creating an equitable funding system means spending more in low-wealth areas. 

“States and districts need to be concerned with resource equity which is both about funding and about the use of dollars in the pursuit of the same equitable outcomes,” Miles said. “And so, for us that means probably more resources to schools and districts that have students with greater needs.”

Department of Public Instruction Chief Financial Officer Adam Levinson outlined the state’s funding system, which is being examined by a legislative task force. At present, schools receive funding from the federal, state, and local level. The state funding, which Levinson explained makes up about 63 percent of the total funding schools receive, is given to districts in allotments. Local school districts then decide how to spend that funding across the district’s schools.

On top of the state’s base funding, which is directed towards categories like teachers, administrators, instructional support, and classroom materials, the state provides supplemental funding for particular needs of districts. Districts can receive that funding based on income, size, and the percentage of their student population learning English or with special needs.

Levinson said funding strategies, like attaching funding to individual students, will not make much of a difference.

“One way or another you have to decide how much you think the program costs and then you have to think about am I going to weight for special characteristics, and then you come up with a way of dishing that out that is standard, that is equitable, that will treat everyone, whether you’re in Greene County or Guilford County, the same, equitably,” Levinson said.

Throughout the day, participants discussed the degree of flexibility in different sources of funding. Poston said district-level control over where funding goes is essential. Even if two districts are funded comparably in total, Poston said the percentage of funding that comes from local sources matters.

“There is no more flexible dollars that a school superintendent and a district has than local dollars,” he said. “That’s where they have the ability to put money where they need it most. That’s where it shows up. When you get into the question of how do you define equity … part of what I would define it is the appropriate amount of money for where it’s needed.”

Superintendents in the room agreed that local dollars are the most useful for meeting district-specific needs, followed by state supplemental funding based on district characteristics. They said there are more restrictions attached to state allotments each year. Jackson said he has seen flexibility decrease over his eight years as superintendent in Vance County.

“I think people think we get our money and then we are able to just say, ‘Oh, we’ll put it where we need it,'” Jackson said. “Our money comes to us in buckets in most cases, and you have to really operate within those buckets if you’re going to utilize many of those allotments. Where you have flexibility, it’s here this year but it may be gone next year.”

Greene County Schools Superintendent Patrick Miller emphasized the need for professional development funding. He said his district has relied on Title 2 federal funding since a state-level allotment was eliminated in the 2011-12 school year. Congress is considering cutting that funding, which Miller said provides around $160,000 annually for professional development in Greene County.

“Those dollars are critical in our district,” Miller said. “If educators can’t provide continuing education through the field of education, that seems to me to be mind-boggling.”

Several members called for more respect and professionalization of the teaching profession.

“If you don’t have professional development, you’re not going to have many professionals for very long … because things change,” said commission chair Brad Wilson. “And this is right in the space of why this commission came together.”

Helen Ladd, Duke University professor and commission member, reminded the group multiple times to think of the ultimate goals of the state’s system and to be specific when using words like ‘equity,’ ‘equality,’ and ‘outcomes.’

“What are our values?” Ladd said. “What are we trying to achieve? I’m hoping at some point during the discussions we can have a general discussion on what it is we’re trying to do.”

The commission’s next meeting is on April 10. Members discussed holding the meeting somewhere other than Raleigh but no decision has been announced. 

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.