Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — Tune in to any discussion about education in North Carolina, and you are bound to hear someone say that our state ranks near the bottom in national rankings of spending on students. Dr. Terry Stoops, John Locke Foundation director of education studies, has analyzed that claim and the impact of education spending on student performance. Stoops discussed the issue with Donna Martinez for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)
Martinez: Before we get into where we rank, just briefly explain for us where education funding comes from.
Stoops: About 65 percent of our education funding comes from state sources. These are taxes paid into the state and distributed to all 115 school districts and charter schools in the state. About 25 percent of the funding comes from local property tax revenue that’s appropriated by county commissions. And anywhere between 10 percent and 15 percent, depending on the year, will come from the federal government, through No Child Left Behind and other programs that they have in place that basically target the money toward special populations.
Martinez: Speaking of special populations, we often hear folks say that kids from low-income communities are getting less funding than kids who live in wealthier areas. Is that true?
Stoops: No, that’s absolutely not true. Because the state controls so much of the funding, they’re able to target their funding to counties that can’t raise a lot of revenue on the local scale. So you have some of our poorest counties receiving some of our highest per-pupil expenditures from the state because the state recognizes that there isn’t a lot of industry in the county, a small tax base, or other circumstances that make it difficult for them to raise much money for their schools.
Martinez: So, in effect, is it true then that kids from low-income communities might actually have higher per-pupil funding for education than kids from more affluent communities?
Stoops: Yes, that’s absolutely the case. Not only that, when the money comes to a school district, they usually send additional funds to schools that have a lot of free and reduced[-price] lunch or low-income kids. So even on the local level, when that money is received, they distribute those funds to the schools that need them the most.
Martinez: So that’s where the money comes from. Now let’s talk about where North Carolina ranks as compared to other states. We’ve heard a lot of discussion about education funding here recently, and I keep hearing people say North Carolina is near the bottom. Are we?
Stoops: No, we’re not. According to the National Education Association, North Carolina is 42nd in per-pupil spending — just over $8,500. Now, it should be noted that this doesn’t include capital. This is just operating costs from state, federal, and local sources combined. So when you add capital costs, our per-pupil expenditure is over $9,000 a year, and it’s going to be a little higher than a lot of states that don’t have a lot of building going on like we do.
Martinez: What usually accompanies the argument that we’re at the bottom is that it’s because the state’s education budget has been cut. What do you make of that argument?
Stoops: Well, it actually hasn’t been cut. There has been a 2.8 percent increase in state funding for public schools, and a lot of this money is going to make up for the fact that federal funds that were given to North Carolina — under the condition that they would only receive [the funds] for two or three years — are going to be pulled by the federal government.
So the state and localities are left holding the responsibility of getting money to replace that [money] which the federal government is going to take away through their stimulus program and what’s called “edu-jobs.” That federal money is gone, and so the fact that there was a small increase in per-pupil allotment from the state attempts to make up for some of that federal loss.
Martinez: So we rank 42nd, then, out of the 50 states. Now, Terry, some folks might hear that and say, “Well, 42nd doesn’t sound very good.” What does 42nd really mean?
Stoops: It really doesn’t mean much from an educational standpoint because there isn’t a very close relationship between funding and student performance. In fact, one of the states that have had the greatest success in raising student achievement is Florida. They actually rank down near 45 and 46 in the nation in per-pupil spending. Conversely, some of our worst schools are in New Jersey, a state that spends upwards of $18,000 per student. So there is very, very little evidence of a relationship between per-pupil spending — or overall education spending, for that matter — and student achievement.
Martinez: Is there any research, then, as to what really is the lowest amount that a state should be spending on a child in order to have a “properly funded” education environment? And I use the phrase “properly funded” in quotes. Any research on the lows and the highs?
Stoops: Not a whole lot of research on that. But if you look at it from an international perspective, you have countries that spend much less than the United States — sometimes $2,000 and $3,000 per student less than the United States — and outperform us on international assessments. So if you look at it from the view that the least amount you can spend on a student and still perform well, from an international standpoint, countries like South Korea and Japan spend thousands less per student and show much better results than we do.
Martinez: What are they doing that we don’t?
Stoops: Well, I think that teacher quality is something that’s emphasized much more in those countries. Getting the best and the brightest from their colleges to then go and teach and perfect their craft — I think that’s something that we don’t seem to do much here in the United States. In fact, we seem to look for those who go to schools of education, get their credentials, and go teach maybe for a few years and then become just part of the system, rather than perfecting their craft and becoming better and better teachers as they get older.
Martinez: Terry, since there’s not a straight line, so to speak, between how much money you are spending per child and the outcome, how well that child is doing — what they’re learning and how they’re achieving — then why do we continue to hear the call for more money?
Stoops: Well, that’s because many people believe that the more money you spend, the better the achievement. This is where the politics and popular misconception come into play. Politically, saying you want to spend more money on education is something that everyone seems to like. Many people who don’t have a grasp of the research literature believe that the more you spend on education, the better the results. So, politically, it’s a very easy thing to do, but there’s no basis for raising per-pupil expenditures and expecting a better result.
Martinez: So what is the answer to try to help these kids learn more, achieve at a higher rate?
Stoops: Well, I would like to see the state look more at attending to the needs of individual kids and, if those needs aren’t being met by a traditional public school, allowing them to go to charter schools and private schools using public funding.
Also, perhaps looking at getting nontraditional teachers into the classroom — these are teachers that don’t have that credential that is necessary now to enter the teaching profession. So looking at opportunities to lessen the amount of restrictions on parents and schools, and increasing the flexibility in who can teach and where they can go.