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Restructuring school allocations: leveling up or leveling down?

While North Carolinians endured the political contretemps over reaching a certified result in the election for governor, a legislative committee received a report likely to consume a vast quantity of law-making energy over the next year or two, or more. At issue is how the state distributes funds to county and city education districts to operate public schools.

The 131-page report by the General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division is not easy to digest. To explain it, the staff gave the legislative oversight committee a PowerPoint presentation of 83 slides. It is a serious effort to execute a serious purpose: to gauge how laws are working.

The report, which serves as a reminder that the state’s education enterprise is large and complex, directs legislators to fix what it identifies as not “equitable,” and yet cautions that developing a fix will take extended deliberation. The unspoken reality is that sweeping change produces political and fiscal winners and losers that legislators will have to grapple with.

The legislative staff found several allotments — for example, for children with disabilities and disadvantaged students — that do not necessarily align funding with needs. A major finding is that the allotment for classroom teachers “results in a distribution of resources across LEAs (local education agencies) that favors wealthy counties.”

The report suggests the establishment of an all-legislator task force on education finance — to either reform the current system, or to develop what it calls a “weighted student funding model.” Clearly, it’s putting on the agenda consideration of a distinct shift toward financing schools by allocating funds per-pupil.

To be sure, a skewed distribution of funds intended to give schools capacity to educate students with disabilities, with limited English proficiency, and in economic distress commands legislative attention. But along with such potential for reward, the report carries elements of risk.

As the report acknowledges, the reason for the teacher allocation tilting toward wealthy counties is that thriving metropolitan school districts attract teachers with the most experience, higher education levels, and more board certification than less economically robust towns and counties. So the staff suggests that a restructuring may “ensure a more equitable distribution of resources for teachers.’’

Obvious questions: Would a “more equitable distribution’’ level up or level down? What would the state’s students gain by making it more difficult for large, growing districts to attract talent? Isn’t it more than an allocation issue to meet the challenge of increasing the supply of high-quality teachers, and attracting more to rural counties?

The weighted student funding concept also contains serious issues. Education is not simply a personal good, but a community asset. A school of 300 or of 3,000 needs a principal, a cafeteria, a library, a playground — in other words, it needs institutional funding.

What’s more, the staff indicates that a student formula would be adaptable to distance learning, dual and open enrollment, and “other emerging types of publicly-funded education.” Pardon the suspicion that funding that follows the student would result in yet another flowing of tax revenue into private education and out of public schools upon which the state’s civic and economic stability depends.

Of course, allocations aren’t appropriations. A restructuring to align money with needs could produce efficiencies and savings. But a restructuring could also become little more than reshuffling financial insufficiency. From raising teacher and principal pay, to expanding preK and bolstering high schools, and more, the larger question that looms is whether the state will fund schools sufficiently to meet the mandate to give every children a sound basic education.

(For more details on the report to the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee, see the two well-balanced reports by Alex Granados of EdNC, a brief roundup and an in-depth look.)

Ferrel Guillory

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