Fixing our public schools with blinders on

By: - November 7, 2017 5:00 am

NC lawmakers to examine everything about education funding…except how much we spend

The instinct to be frugal when it comes to how much government spends on public structures and services is not an unhealthy one. Whatever one’s views on the great ideological debates of our day, there can be no denying that waste, fraud and abuse will always be a constant problem for all large human institutions. If you have any doubts, I’ve got some surplus $640 toilet seats from the Pentagon for you to check out.

This is undoubtedly the case when it comes to public schools. Sometimes waste and inefficiency are the results of our failure to invest enough up front – such as when leaky windows and decrepit HVAC systems plague cheaply constructed schools with big and unnecessary utility bills or when our failure to pay teachers adequate salaries leads to a constant churn in school staffing.

But, truth be told, sometimes waste and inefficiency in our education system are attributable to plain old bureaucracy, inertia and even dishonesty. As in virtually every other enterprise – public or private – there are too many complicated rules and funding streams, too many forms to fill out, too much conflict and litigation and too many employees who should find another line of work.

(As an aside, it should be pointed out that a large percentage of bureaucratic rules are actually produced to assuage conservatives by making sure that no students or other beneficiaries of public services get even a scintilla of anything to which they may not be entitled.)

Here, however, is another important and undeniable pair of truths about education funding:

Number One: It is absurd to think that the North Carolina public schools will be the institution in which humans finally achieve a world-changing breakthrough in curbing waste and inefficiency. We can certainly do better, but not that much better – at least, not at any point in the near future.

Number Two: It is equally absurd to think that we can achieve the kind of results that North Carolina’s 1.5 million students deserve by remaining mired near the bottom of the national pack in overall education spending. This is especially true when you consider the fact that such a large percentage of North Carolina children must overcome huge, existential problems like poverty, lack of health care, broken families, a lack of a stable address and even hunger.

The legislature examines education funding…part of it anyway

With these hard truths as backdrop, it has been especially frustrating to read of late about the General Assembly’s most recent effort to examine North Carolina’s education funding system. As Policy Watch reporter Billy Ball explained in articles last week and the week before, it appears that legislators driving the new Joint legislative Task Force on Education Finance Reform actually do think they can achieve the impossible:

Craig Horn knows many education advocates want the school finance task force he co-chairs to weigh whether North Carolina spends enough on its public schools.

But the Union County Republican, an influential K-12 budget writer, wasted little time in reaffirming Wednesday that he considers the state’s spending levels to be an altogether separate discussion.

‘Some people have taken us to task for this,’ Horn said. ‘But adequacy is a different issue. This is an issue of what funds we have, and how they’re distributed. Because, regardless of how much money we have, if we’re not distributing it properly and for the benefit of students, then we’re wasting money.’”

What that means, of course, is that Horn and his fellow GOP lawmakers are all for looking at the “equity” of how North Carolina distributes the money it spends on schools, but even discussing “adequacy” – the idea of how much the state spends – will be strictly forbidden.

This is from Ball’s October 25 story:

In the meantime, he [Horn] rebuffed calls from some Democrats and public school advocates that legislators take up the overall adequacy of the state’s K-12 funding.

North Carolina’s per-pupil funding—more than $7,300 per student—plunged after the 2008 recession, and today, it ranks a lowly 43rd in the nation, according to one nonpartisan national benchmark released annually by the National Education Association.

Another report, issued this year by the Education Law Center at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education, dished out an “F” grade to North Carolina for its “funding effort,” a measure that assesses per-student funding relative to the state’s fiscal capacity, or its gross state product.”

The impetus behind the refusal to examine the adequacy of education funding in North Carolina is not hard to divine. Simply put: legislative leaders are afraid of what they might find – namely that we are woefully underfunding our schools.

An excellent editorial in Raleigh’s News & Observer from this past weekend put it this way:

There’s no harm in assessing the system and it’s encouraging to see Horn in a leading role. He is known for being open-minded about improving schools and he intends to hear from all sides in a process he expects to take more than two years to complete.

…[But the] process will be shadowed by the Republican record on school funding. Since taking control of the General Assembly in 2011, Republican lawmakers have failed to keep up with the needs of a growing population of public school students. Total school funding has increased, but most of the extra spending has gone into required increases in benefits and to try to make up for years of underpaying teachers. That spending hasn’t done much to add more teachers. Meanwhile, most school districts lack textbooks, teacher assistants and school counselors.

An extended look at how inadequate funds are distributed may result in aggravating the funding shortage. Rural legislators may push for a raid on urban school districts’ funding, or the formula could change to provide more money to charter schools, which are already funded with $500 million diverted from traditional public school districts.”

The elephant in the room

The bottom line in all of this is that North Carolina can’t simply cut or rearrange its way to a just and adequate system of public schools. It’s certainly true that some public schools are better funded than others, but even in the state’s wealthier areas, one would be hard-pressed to find schools in which children and teachers are whiling away their days in great luxury.

Indeed, even in our better-off schools, many basic spending lines remain pathetically underfunded. As the North Carolina Justice Center’s Kris Nordstrom observed a couple of months’ back, in an essay about funding for textbooks and supplies:

Per-student funding for supplies and materials is less than half of the amount provided in the 2009-10 school year. In current-dollar terms, the state provided funding of $68 per student in the 2009-10 school year, compared to just $31 per student for this school year.”

But, as he also noted, that’s far from the only shortfall:

When adjusting for enrollment and inflation, school funding has been cut in the following areas since leadership of the General Assembly switched hands in 2010 (a time period in which the state was already struggling to find resources as a result of the Great Recession): classroom teachers, instructional support personnel (counselors, nurses, librarians, etc.), school building administrators (principals and assistant principals), teacher assistants, transportation, low wealth schools, disadvantaged students, central office, limited English proficiency, academically gifted, small counties, driver training, and school technology. Funding streams for teacher professional development and mentoring of beginning teachers have been eliminated completely.”

Given such an outrageous scenario, it strains credulity to imagine that merely altering funding streams or even dramatically curbing waste and inefficiency will somehow address what ails North Carolina’s schools. As Nordstrom put it in a recent tweet:

An equitable school funding system will fail if it’s inadequate. An adequate system will fail if it’s inequitable. Must be examined together.”

Let’s hope against hope that Nordstrom’s insightful observation makes a real impact on Rep. Horn and other legislative leaders at some point in the very near future. It ought to become the motto for their new task force.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.