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In national report on inequitable school funding, North Carolina an exception

EdBuild, a nonprofit that studies public school funding, has released a new report with a made-for-headlines finding: Across the United States in 2016, predominantly white school districts received $23 billion more in state and local funding than predominantly minority districts.

“The inherent links between race and class in our country haven’t been remedied by school-funding lawsuits nor the passage of time,” says the report from the New Jersey-based research and advocacy organization. “They remain ever present, and while we have made some progress on the issue of economic inequality in our schools, we still have a terribly inequitable system.”

North Carolina, of course, has its long-entrenched school finance disparities — especially between low-wealth rural communities and its economically-robust urban counties. However, the Tar Heel state did not contribute to the $23 billion gap. It’s instructive to explore the why and wherefore of North Carolina emerging outside the prevailing pattern.

EdBuild focused on school districts where 75 percent of the students were white and 75 percent were students of color. The two categories of districts had nearly equal total enrollments: 12.8 million in nonwhite districts, 12.5 million in white districts.

Across the nation, public schools are operated in relatively compact, sub-county units. Their funding rests heavily on local property taxes, with state and federal assistance as supplements. “Our economically and racially divided school districts have grown up out of the root of local funding,” says EdBuild.

As an exception to the rule, North Carolina joined a dozen other states, most of them in the South. Like most states in the region, its public school governance and finance are highly centralized. In a state of 100 counties with 115 districts, almost all counties form a single school system. And since North Carolina’s sweeping fiscal reform during the Great Depression, state government bears the major burden of paying teachers and otherwise funding school operations. Local and federal funding serve as supplements to state appropriations.

In North Carolina, according to EdBuild, nonwhite districts received $634 per student more than white districts. Adding in poverty as a factor, EdBuild found that the state’s poor nonwhite districts received $469 more than poor white districts.

The EdBuild analysis suggests, therefore, that North Carolina’s legacy of state-centric funding and its countywide districts combine as bulwarks in addressing economic and social disparities. To break apart districts would threaten to move North Carolina closer to the inequitably quilted pattern of northern states.

While North Carolina’s predominantly nonwhite districts received somewhat more funding in 2016 than its predominantly white districts, the data also raise once again the issue of adequacy, whatever the racial and ethnic composition of districts. North Carolina’s state-local per pupil expenditures fell from $2,000 to $3,000 below national averages for both white and nonwhite high-poverty school districts, according to EdBuild’s calculations.

The EdBuild report came out the week after the myFutureNC commission released its “call to action’’ to address educational disparities in seeking to meet the labor market needs of the state’s fast-changing economy. The commission proposed a goal of increasing the number of 25-to-44-year-olds with a post-high school degree or job-ready credential from 1.3 million to 2 million by 2030.

“Far fewer North Carolina students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds complete degrees in six years or less than do students with greater economic stability,” says the myFutureNC report. And it goes on to say, “Improving the educational outcomes for disadvantaged students, especially those from Black, Hispanic, and American Indian backgrounds, is critical to building the state’s infrastructure of opportunity, promoting social mobility, and maintaining North Carolina’s economic growth.”

Though not connected, the EdBuild and myFutureNC reports help define a fundamental imperative to assure North Carolina’s success in facing the future — to lift up lower-income young people, whatever their ZIP code, into the ranks of skilled and well-educated citizens.

For more on EdBuild, here are links to recent articles in The 74 Million and The Washington Post.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.