Times are good in North Carolina. Unemployment is low, a record number of companies are making large investments and the state has been able to cut taxes and still have a budget surplus.
But amid this prosperity, the share of state resources going to public schools has hit bottom.
That's the stark finding of a new report by the progressive Education Law Center (ELC) called "Making the Grade." It ranks North Carolina's school funding effort - the percentage of its gross domestic product spent on public schools - as the lowest in the nation.
Danielle Farrie, the ELC's research director, said in a statement, "North Carolina's abysmal performance on Making the Grade makes clear that schools are funded inadequately and inequitably, and that the state has the capacity to do more."
The state's weak effort is matched by dismal funding levels. The report said North Carolina's per-pupil funding level for the 2019-2020 school year was $4,695 below the national average and, in inflation-adjusted dollars, the state's per-pupil spending has decreased by 11 percent since 2008. In the categories of school funding levels and funding effort, the report graded North Carolina with two Fs.
That should be a call to action in North Carolina. That's what a casual listener may have heard when state Senate leader Phil Berger extolled the accomplishments of the Republican-led General Assembly at the start of its new session.
"We must come together to ensure that our students can read and have the opportunity for a quality education. Without question, education is a great equalizer in a free society," he said in a speech to his fellow lawmakers. "We fail in our most important task if we fail to recognize and act on that fact."
But this call comes with an odd caveat. Berger thinks the way "to act on that fact" isn't necessarily spending more on public schools. "We must disabuse ourselves of the notion that more money alone buys positive outcomes for our students," he said. "Success in education policy is about more than hitting some arbitrary funding goal."
Instead, Berger thinks the solution is to expand opportunities for parents to use alternatives to the traditional public schools, such as taxpayers-supported vouchers to pay private school tuition. The state has allocated more than $120 million this year for vouchers under its Opportunity Scholarships Program despite a comprehensive study from Duke that found the program is "poorly designed to promote better academic outcomes for children and is unlikely to do so over time."
Assessments such as the ELC report are not going to shame Republican lawmakers to spend more for public schools that are coping with teacher and staff shortages and aging buildings. That will become painfully clear if the legislature resists a state Supreme Court ruling that requires it to provide enough funding for a basic education. The court said in November that the legislature must meet higher spending levels as outlined by an agreement in the school funding case known as Leandro.
The court directed the new judge in the Leandro case, Cumberland County Superior Court Judge James Ammons, to determine how much more funding is needed above the current state budget allocation. But that ruling came from a court split between four Democratic and three Republican justices. November's elections changed that balance to 5-2 in favor of Republicans, who may be sympathetic to efforts to reverse the ruling. Ammons is expected to hold a hearing soon on what will be the next steps in the funding case.
North Carolina's effort to fund schools has hit the bottom and - noble speeches and the state's prosperity aside - Republican lawmakers are content to leave it there.
That neglect can't be tolerated. As the ELC's Farrie said, "If North Carolina wants to get serious about improving educational outcomes and closing opportunity gaps, the Legislature must stop dragging its heels and instead provide the funding necessary to enforce the Leandro decision and implement the court-ordered remedial plan."
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