RALEIGH – Wake County Judge Howard Manning, Jr. has fired yet another broadside in North Carolina’s lengthy legal battle over education funding, pushing for the General Assembly to respond favorably to a request of $22 million for 16 mostly rural districts. Through all the smoke, it's hard to judge the result.
I use the wooden-ship analogy on purpose. So far, the debate on the Leandro case and school equity looks like ships tacking in the wind. Occasionally, cannons boom or marines take pop shots. But the damage has been mostly at the water line. Contrary to popular belief, naval engagements in the age of sail were seldom won by a cannon ball poking a hole and sinking a ship. You aimed at taking down an enemy’s masts and rigging, immobilizing her. Or, if you were lucky, you started a fire that ignited the ship's powder. Many engagements weren’t decisive; fleets would approach each other, curve into parallel lines exchanging broadsides, and then flee if they got the worst of it.
In the school-equity debate, the analogous activity has been multiple trips to court. The resulting decisions have left much room to maneuver for plaintiffs from low-wealth counties, interveners from higher-cost urban counties, and state attorneys accepting the courts’ constitutional intepretations but denying that any particular remedy was required.
The maneuvers continued. Plaintiffs hoped that the judiciary would order a massive influx of state dollars linked to property-tax base. Interveners hoped for a massive influx of dollars linked to land and labor costs. Some state officials secretly hoped their “side” would lose, thus allowing lawmakers to hike spending and taxes and then use the Leandro decision as cover. Other officials sought to preserve their freedom of action.
But the courts haven’t (yet) generated any of these outcomes. The litigation didn’t yield an order that all districts get equal funding. Instead, the decisions have yielded an “adequacy” standard – that minimum funding be afforded to comply with constitutional requirements. The debate is one of priorities, not overall resources (see our latest “Raising the Issue” online debate for more.) North Carolina now spends nearly $8,000 per public-school student (including capital). The amount is dramatically more than spent a generation ago. It is more than the wealthiest districts spent when the equity litigation began. As a share of income, it’s about average for the U.S. In dollars adjusted for cost of living, it is likely somewhat above the national average. It is well above the average cost of private education, contrary to myth (the vast majority of private-school students pay less than $5,000 a year in tuition).
Manning’s endorsement of the $22 million in supplemental funding for low-wealth districts can quite easily be “paid for” by foregoing most or all of the $50 million Easley wants to reduce third-grade class sizes, a reduction that will have little educational significance while imposing additional building costs on many of the same districts. In wooden-ship terms, this is like Lord Nelson's tactic at Trafalgar: head straight for the opponent, take the risk of getting shot at first, and then open up on their bow or stern.
No one can seriously argue that statewide class-size reduction is mandated by Leandro. That’s what the courts have getting it all along: the state constitution sets priorities and establishes minimums. It does not justify continuous and wasteful grabs at the taxpayers’ wallets.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.