National reports note wide resource disparities
Two national reports released this week find that North Carolina is failing to adequately fund its public schools, mirroring a years-long trend of state disinvestment in public education.
In documenting the massive resource disparities in public schools nationwide, reports issued by the Education Law Center (ELC) and the Leadership Conference Education Fund gave North Carolina an F for how much money it spends on public education relative to its gross state product.
“Compared to other states, North Carolina has a pretty good fiscal capacity for spending—but it isn’t spending its money on public schools,” said Molly Hunter, director of the ELC’s Education Justice program, noting that the Tar Heel state was very last in terms of the ‘effort’ it put into school funding.
North Carolina had made significant gains in per pupil spending levels up until 2010, thanks in part to federal stimulus dollars that were designed to help mitigate the negative fiscal impact of the Great Recession.
But beginning in 2010, when the state’s school funding levels peaked at $10,015 per pupil — just below the national average — North Carolina began taking a nose dive, erasing all gains made between 2007 and 2010, according to the reports released Monday.
By 2012, per pupil funding levels had fallen to $7,235 — the fourth lowest in the country.
North Carolina seemed to fare better when the reports’ authors looked at whether the state’s funding distribution mechanism is fair.
In measuring whether a state provides more or less funding to schools based on their poverty concentration, with the latter described as ‘regressive,’ the state earned a B.
That’s a big jump up from the Fs that North Carolina once garnered in this category during the 2000s — but that B grade only comes as a result of the state’s recent move to slash funding for the wealthy districts and keeping funding levels for poorer areas stagnant.
The news comes as no surprise to Winston Salem-Forsyth Schools’ longtime budget director, Kerry Crutchfield.
“When I came here 34 years ago, North Carolina was spending 48 percent of its budget on K-12 education, and now it’s spending 39 percent,” said Crutchfield. “That does give an indication that priorities have changed for one reason or another when it comes to the state’s budget.”
Recent raises come at a high cost to the classroom
Moving the needle in a positive direction when it comes to school funding is not a trend that has been playing out in North Carolina.
“At a time when other businesses are recovering from the economic recession and are steadily reinvesting in their work, North Carolina has failed to reinvest in its schools,” said Jim Merrill, Wake County Schools Superintendent, this time last year.
Looking back to 2013, state lawmakers passed a budget that spent $500 million less on public education than in 2008. They introduced a raft of public school spending cuts that at the time resulted in no raises for teachers who hadn’t seen a pay bump in years, larger class sizes, fewer teacher assistants, little support for instructional supplies or professional development, and the beginning of the end for the highly praised North Carolina Teaching Fellows program.
Teachers also said goodbye to tenure and supplemental pay for advanced degrees.
Since then, not a whole lot has changed in terms of public school resources. Teachers finally got a significant raise in 2014 after seven years of almost nothing — but at a high cost to the classroom, and veteran teachers saw very small pay bumps.
Funding for teacher assistants took yet another huge hit last year in order to pay for the teacher raises, which largely benefited new teachers, and classroom supplies—especially textbooks—continued to languish.
“We’ve lost 50 percent of our teacher assistants during the past several years,” said Winston Salem-Forsyth’s Crutchfield. “Eighty percent of our textbook funding is gone.”
NaShonda Cooke, a fifth grade teacher at Eno Valley Elementary School in Durham, says her students are lucky if they even have textbooks at all.
“If we do have them, they are very outdated,” said Cooke.
Cooke reports that the very basic supplies and materials are hard to come by in her school. Paper, pencils, even desks for students to sit at are scarce. Teachers typically pay out of their pocket all year long to make sure their kids have the opportunity to learn.
“I used to be able to say to future colleagues coming into the classroom, ‘you’re making the right decision, you’ll have support you need in this work,’” said Cooke, who used to work regularly with NC Teaching Fellows who were studying to become teachers in North Carolina.
When Cooke moved to North Carolina from Pennsylvania 16 years ago to work as a teacher, she says she felt supported. The state helped her obtain her National Board certification and a master’s degree. And she said students had more resources to succeed in the classroom.
“But all of that has grinded to a halt,” said Cooke.
Teachers are reportedly leaving North Carolina in higher numbers for much better pay in neighboring states and enrollment in teacher preparation programs at the state’s univeristy system is down 27 percent between 2010 and 2014.
“It breaks my heart,” said Cooke, who has stopped counting the number of colleagues who have left North Carolina for Maryland, Houston and other locales. “They didn’t have a choice but to relocate to other states.”
The reports released this week note that North Carolina ranks fourth from the bottom in the nation in wage competitiveness.
Proposed House budget boosts education dollars, Senate poised to scale back spending
House lawmakers released a draft 2015-17 budget last month that includes modest pay raises for all teachers and a patchwork of funding initiatives aimed at improving leadership and instruction.
But not included was any kind large funding increase that would truly change how students would be able to fare inside the classroom when it comes to the supports they need to succeed.
“The proposed House budget does not go far enough to ensure every child will receive a quality education in North Carolina,” said North Carolina Association of Educators’ president Rodney Ellis in a statement released in response to the House’s budget. “If we are serious about every child’s future, we must provide students with modern textbooks and technology, more one-one-one attention, and a quality educator in every classroom.”
Budget writer Rep. Nelson Dollar (R-Wake) called the overall proposed House budget, which raises current spending by 6.3 percent, “responsible” and in line with population growth and inflation. In addition to teacher raises, the House proposes boosting textbook funds, fully funding increases in school enrollment and restoring funding for driver’s education.
But even as the economy recovers from the recession and revenue figures are looking better than expected, cuts to public school funding have been significant over the past several years and are not made up for with the 2015-17 House budget proposal, says the N.C. Budget & Tax Center’s Tazra Mitchell.
“Teachers will be in a better position to make ends meet,” said Mitchell of the House plan. “But there is still lots on the to-do list for state budget writers when it comes to inside the classroom.”
Next week the Senate is expected to release its own budget proposal — and it’s likely to spend even fewer dollars on public education.
Spending targets released last month suggest that the Senate could propose shelling out $167.7 million less on education next year than what the House proposed in the budget that they passed last month.
“With the Senate plan, we couldn’t rebuild classrooms — there would be no way to meaningfully reduce class sizes, boost professional development that improves students’ learning outcomes, and we couldn’t recoup the 7,000 state-funded teacher assistants we’ve lost since FY2009,” said Mitchell.
While North Carolina continues on a path of disinvestment in public education, equitable and adequate school funding is perhaps more critical than ever now that children from low-income families make up the majority in the United States’ public schools, according to a report released by the Southern Education Foundation earlier this year.
“School funding decisions are one of the sleeper civil rights issues of our time,” said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and Leadership Conference Education Fund. “The evidence from across the country is clear and compelling: Our nation must dramatically change the way that educational resources are distributed so that there is true equity in America’s classrooms.”
According to Durham teacher NaShonda Cooke, North Carolina has a ways to go.
“I’d have to agree with our state’s letter grade,” said Cooke. “F is for failing. F perfectly reflects what’s going on in our classrooms right now.”
Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or [email protected]