RALEIGH — Public schooling is the state’s single largest, and arguably most important, expenditure. More than one-third of North Carolina’s new $20.2 billion General Fund budget is set aside for K-12 education. As one would expect, the General Assembly spends a great deal of its time debating public education spending and reform. This year’s legislative session was no different.
Often, however, reports about the legislature’s deliberations and actions lack historical and economic context, as well as national and international comparisons of educational inputs and outcomes. Each is essential. They provide information that helps taxpayers determine if elected officials spend their tax dollars wisely.
In recent years, public education spending in North Carolina has fluctuated. Between 2006 and 2009, state legislators approved massive, and ultimately unsustainable, increases in education spending. Despite signs of a weakening state and national economy, operating and capital expenditures rose by more than $1,000 per student during this period.
Those who saw the handwriting on the wall were proven correct. Since 2009, the state has maintained one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. Job creation has been weak. As a result, tax revenue plummeted. The Great Recession hit North Carolina hard and forced Democratic budget writers to send fewer dollars to public schools compared to the 2009 peak.
Last year, under a new Republican-led General Assembly, total education spending rose slightly, but declined a bit in per-pupil terms. Other states experienced larger declines, so North Carolina’s position in per-pupil expenditure rankings actually rose. The National Education Association reported that North Carolina ranked 42nd in the nation in per-pupil spending for 2011-12, compared with 43rd in 2010 and 45th in 2011.
According to the NEA estimate, North Carolina public schools spend about $8,500 per student in local, federal, and state funds for operating expenses. Capital expenditures boost that per-pupil amount to $9,000 a student. To put this in historical perspective, inflation-adjusted per-pupil expenditures more than tripled since 1970.
North Carolina experienced higher-than-projected revenue growth this year, so the Republican legislature was about to add $250 million in state funds to the K-12 education budget without raising taxes. This funding would not offset the expected loss of temporary federal funds, possible decreases in local funding, or the so-called “discretionary reduction,” funds that school districts must return to the state. To do so would have required sizable tax increases, such as those championed by Gov. Bev Perdue, state education officials, and public school lobbyists.
The way these politicians and lobbyists defend their tax-for-schools proposals has not changed for decades. They claim North Carolina’s public school students will not receive an adequate education unless taxpayers agree to “invest” hundreds of millions of additional dollars in the state’s public schools. They warn that the state’s national and international competitiveness is at stake.
While it is true that North Carolina spends less on K-12 education than the national average, we spend more than all but a handful of industrialized nations. According to the latest expenditure statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, average per-student expenditures among North Carolina elementary schools ranked sixth-highest in the world. Average per-student expenditures for secondary school students in the state were fifth-highest.
Despite the state’s relatively high level of spending, studies that link state, national, and international test scores agree that North Carolina’s public school students perform at a mediocre level in reading and math, and rank below most of our closest competitors in Western Europe and the Pacific Rim. Countries whose students outperform North Carolina’s – including Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, and Finland – spend thousands of dollars less per student than we do.
What do other nations know that we don’t? Quality public schools require a focus on productivity, quality, and accountability – not spending. High-performing countries maintain high academic expectations for students and teachers alike. Moreover, these nations employ world-class standards, curricula, and assessments that guide decision-making and instruction. School choice and student-centered funding are also common, albeit not universal, features of outstanding education systems throughout the world.
The evidence suggests something that we have known all along: North Carolina cannot spend its way to success in education or any other endeavor. Despite ample resources, public school students in North Carolina fail to meet or exceed the performance of many of our economic competitors throughout the world. All the money in the world will not change that.
Dr. Terry Stoops (@TerryStoops) is Director of Education Studies at the John Locke Foundation.