North Carolina’s public school system is one of the lowest funded in the nation when adjusted for cost of living, a K-12 researcher told members of a key state school panel Tuesday.
It was just one of many data points hammered home, as school experts and administrators warned a key K-12 task force convened by Gov. Roy Cooper of troubling funding patterns, teacher shortages and yawning local spending gaps in North Carolina.
Karen Hawley Miles is president and executive director of Massachusetts-based Education Resource Strategies, a national nonprofit that advises states on school finances.
Miles’ report, which analyzed both state and national public school spending trends, pointed to numerous shortfalls in the state’s school finance structure, including that North Carolina has the fifth lowest average teacher salary in the nation when adjusted for cost-of-living, and that the state’s teachers earn only about 67 percent of the pay given to “similarly-educated, non-teachers.”
“Not surprisingly, the teaching profession is not particularly attractive in North Carolina,” said Miles.
Teacher recruitment and myriad local district ills took the front burner at Tuesday’s meeting of the Governor’s Commission on Access to a Sound, Basic Education, assembled last year by Cooper to make recommendations for an ongoing court review of the state’s compliance with the 21-year-old Leandro ruling.
In that seminal case , a judge found North Carolina had failed to provide a “sound, basic” education for all students, regardless of the relative wealth in their local school districts. The Leandro case sprang from a 1994 lawsuit filed by parents, children and K-12 administrators in five low-income counties, who argued that their districts weren’t receiving their fair share of public dollars.
The governor’s panel is composed of local school district chiefs, K-12 researchers, business leaders and advocates from across the state.
“There are a lot of eyes on this commission, including the courts,” Cooper told task force members Tuesday. “It’s important the product that you put out there.”
Cooper briefly addressed the commission Tuesday, moments after a panel of local school superintendents bemoaned chronic struggles in recruiting educators, funding shortages and the loss of students to a growing school choice movement.
The governor called on members to create a plan that’s “innovative” and “open-minded” to address lagging schools in certain districts.
“We know our state is not meeting the demands of a sound, basic education for all of our kids,” Cooper added. “We know of the significant challenges that are out there. We have to make this a priority.”
Cooper’s task force is expected to partner with a court-ordered consultant over the next year in preparing fixes for North Carolina’s long-running, geographic disparities in public schools.
It seems unlikely that the Democratic governor’s task force’s work will intersect with that of a Republican-controlled legislative panel that’s charged with authoring its own overhaul  of K-12 financing in the coming years.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of N.C. CEO Brad Wilson, who’s chairing Cooper’s task force, told members this week that he hopes to deliver “clear and actionable” recommendations for retired Superior Court Judge W. David Lee, who’s administering the long-running court case.
Cooper said the task force’s recommendations will be vital to the state’s compliance.
“Come up with an answer that’s doable,” he said. “We know that we’re not going to be able to do it all immediately, but we can have a plan.”
No recommendations emerged from Tuesday’s session, which was the second held by Cooper’s task force. But Wilson said the report will take time.
Members also received a report from the Public School Forum of N.C., a nonprofit, policy and research group in Raleigh that publishes annual data on local school spending gaps  between wealthy and poor counties.
That report, released last month, documented persistent gaps in local funding, at least partly owing to widely varying tax bases in North Carolina counties. For example, Greene County, one of the state’s lowest-spending, paid approximately $736 per student, compared to Orange County’s $4,852.
“The gaps are so striking,” said Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Public School Forum.
And while state and federal dollars help to level off funding for poorer counties, Poston points out that such funds often come with strings attached. Local dollars are often the most flexible for use on a district’s varying needs.
“These local dollars matter,” added Poston.
Local school superintendents chimed in on the funding issues, detailing massive teacher turnover in some districts.
“Every single year, the churn is such that we start over,” said Anthony Jackson, superintendent of Vance County Schools. Jackson’s school system—which far exceeds the state’s average teacher turnover rate in elementary, middle and high schools —was one of the original five counties in the Leandro case. Its principal turnover rate, meanwhile, was a staggering 24 percent in 2016-2017, compared to the state average of nine percent.
Today, Vance County Schools serves more than 6,000 students near the Virginia border, many of them hailing from poor families.
Jackson echoed the concerns of many rural districts when he talked of the district’s efforts to prepare its new crop of teachers, only to see educators “poached” by districts with the financial resources to offer higher pay supplements.
The panel of superintendents also complained of the financial challenges spurred by a growing school choice movement in the state. Since state legislators lifted a 100-school charter cap in 2011, charters have exploded across the state, with 171 operating today.
State lawmakers have also acted to funnel millions of public dollars on a recurring basis to private school scholarships for low-income children, a controversial program for many public school advocates.
Jackson pointed out that his system serves just 78 percent of the school-age children in Vance County today, a fact he attributed to the rise of charters. “(Parents) have choices, and they vote with their feet,” he added.
But Rutherford County Schools Superintendent Janet Mason, whose district enrolls roughly 8,000 students in western North Carolina, said traditional school districts are often left with a greater share of high-needs children. Services for such students are typically more expensive, Mason pointed out.
Districts are also facing “unfunded expectations,” Jackson said, with locals demanding greater in-school, mental health services to combat school violence. Districts often lack the resources to make those services practical, he said.
“We have a lot of unfunded expectations and they become mandates,” said Jackson.
Members are expected to consider other states’ funding methods, and how they compare to North Carolina’s when they return for their third meeting in April.