Legislature’s school funding task force is no force; not up to task

By: - May 2, 2018 10:08 am
Task Force co-chairs, Sen. Michael Lee & Rep. Craig Horn

After seven meetings during this legislative interim, the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Task Force on Education Finance Reform has proven itself incapable of seriously rethinking how North Carolina funds its public schools. Careful examination of a state’s school funding system is tough work. It requires strategic thinking, and good information; neither of which have been hallmarks of the Task Force’s work.

In its first year, Task Force has failed to complete even the first step towards considering alternatives to North Carolina’s school funding system – neglecting to identify which aspect(s) of our current school funding system they find problematic. In fact, they have expressly vowed to avoid examining the adequacy of school funding, even though most experts would agree that the inadequacy of state funding is a much bigger barrier to student success than the inefficient distribution of existing funds.

The Task Force’s inability to identify what problem(s) they hope to solve has also prevented they from taking other necessary steps such as defining consensus goals for the qualities they want to see in any new school finance system. The Task Force has yet to define terms like “equity” or “efficiency,” let alone establish a consensus, prioritized list of which aspects of school finance (i.e. equity, stability, transparency) lawmakers most value. Without taking these steps, the Task Force will never be able to methodically assess alternative funding proposals.

The Task Force’s work has been hindered further by a stream of presenters who have done more to misinform than inform.

At the Task Force’s February and March meetings, members heard from a series of charter school advocates. Several, including Lt. Governor Dan Forest’s policy director, trotted out debunked statistics, falsely claiming that North Carolina’s charter schools received significantly less funding than their traditional counterparts. Other charter leaders, such as Research Triangle High School’s Pamela Blizzard, offered plenty of grievances, but were unable to answer basic questions about how their own schools are funded.

General Assembly members could substantially improve the state’s method for funding charter schools (notably by funding new and growing charters via a direct allotment, rather than by reducing school district funds). But despite two meetings on funding of charter schools, the only consistent theme was the disinformation pushed by the charter community.

Last week’s meeting provided similarly little benefit in helping the Task Force accurately diagnose issues with North Carolina’s school funding system. The Task Force heard from Georgetown University’s Marguerite Roza. Despite her impressive credentials, few of Roza’s criticisms of North Carolina’s funding system were supported by evidence.

Mostly, Roza hammered North Carolina’s use of position allotments. Position allotments provide districts with a given number of positions per student, with the state taking responsibility for paying the appropriate salary (per the state salary schedule) for the given position. Most other states use dollar allotments – providing districts a fixed pot of funds from which to pay personnel. North Carolina’s superintendents and finance officers (as made clear at the Task Force’s January meeting) strongly prefer position allotments because position allotments allow districts to make hire the best available candidate without having to make concessions for how that candidate’s experience or credentials might impact local budgets.

Roza, however, disagrees with North Carolina’s district leaders, claiming position allotments create inequalities across districts, limit flexibility, and inhibit innovation. Unfortunately, she offered no evidence to back these claims. Statistical analysis shows there’s no evidence that position allotments create inequalities. Further, there’s nothing inherent about position allotments that limit flexibility, and Roza failed to present any evidence that that the type of allotment used has any impact on innovation.

Roza’s presentation made a few other odd, unhelpful diversions. She presented one misleading slide to try and claim that there’s little relationship between school spending and student outcomes; a claim that flies in the face of the past 20 years of education research, and one that Rutgers University’s Bruce Baker was able to quickly debunk on Twitter. Roza also bizarrely claimed that a teacher’s performance will change if the source of their funding changes. Unfortunately, she was never forced to explain her theory as to why a teacher might perform better if their paycheck was backed by funds from a dollar allotment rather than backed by funds from a position allotment. Finally, she tried to claim that California improved student performance by granting districts additional spending flexibility – ignoring that the state also substantially increased its overall level of school funding and focused funding increases on districts with the greatest share of at-risk students.

A cursory look at other states shows there’s little, if anything, to be gained by abandoning North Carolina’s funding system. Roza, and the legislation creating the Task Force, recommend overhauling North Carolina’s school funding system to what’s known as a weighted student funding system. But 10 of the 11 states with lower per-pupil funding than North Carolina use the weighted student model pushed by Roza. Similarly, nearly every state with funding systems that are more inequitable than North Carolina’s has a weighted student formula. Further, North Carolina gets impressive “bang for the buck” on its school spending: analysis from the Urban Institute shows that North Carolina continues to out-perform most other states, even though we spend relatively little on our public schools. I’m not arguing that our funding system is why North Carolina tends to get a better return on our limited school investment. But given the substantial transition costs of moving from one system to another, the onus is on advocates for overhauling our school funding system to provide clear evidence that doing things like other states will provide meaningful benefits to students.

Ultimately, there’s very little reason to think that the choice of funding model would have a significant impact on students. After all, weighted student models and North Carolina’s resource allocation model are just two different ways to calculate the amount of funding given to a school district. As a worker, I don’t care if my boss calculates my pay on a calculator or an abacus – I just want whichever method yields me the biggest check. Similarly, school districts are less interested in how their state funding is calculated and more concerned whether the money they receive from the state allows them to help all of their students to meet state educational goals. It’s the policy decisions of lawmakers (i.e., how much to spend; how to direct funds towards the greatest areas of need; how to account for districts’ varying levels of property wealth; what rules to place on district spending), not the choice of funding model, that impact district performance.

Roza’s remarks weren’t entirely off the mark. Though not the main thrust of her presentation, she joined the legion of other Task Force presenters mentioning the importance of having an adequate level of funding. To the extent that one common theme has emerged in presentations to the Task Force, it’s that national experts, superintendents, finance officers, and charter school leaders have all mentioned the importance of making sure our funding system has an adequate level of total funding. Yet the Task Force leadership remains committed to ignoring this central question, as any serious adequacy analysis would lay bare the extent to which Republican leadership has been under-funding our schools.

The best news last week was that the Task Force will not be presenting any recommended changes to North Carolina’s school funding system in the upcoming short session.

Unfortunately, without a major overhaul in leadership, there’s no reason to think that an additional year will help the Task Force develop useful changes to our education funding system. The Task Force chairs have offered no coherent strategy for gathering credible information, diagnosing problems, and weighing alternative solutions. And it’s the Task Force leadership that requested presentations from dishonest charter advocates and the evidence-averse “expertise” of Marguerite Roza. For this group of legislators, the task is clearly out of their reach.

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Kris Nordstrom
Kris Nordstrom

Kris Nordstrom is a Senior Policy Analyst with the North Carolina Justice Center's Education & Law Project. He previously spent nine years with the North Carolina General Assembly’s nonpartisan Fiscal Research Division.