Last year, North Carolina public schools operated under the first budget passed by the Republican legislative majority elected in 2010. Doomsday prophets -- the media, state education officials, and public school advocacy groups -- declared that the budget would do nothing less than destroy the state's public education system. In one notable instance of hyperbolic hilarity, Gov. Bev Perdue proclaimed that the budget would "result in generational damage" to North Carolina's public schools.
It is a year later and our public schools are still here. So if the Republicans in the General Assembly did not dismantle North Carolina's education system, what exactly did they do? According to data recently released by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, the answer is clear. In their first year at the helm, Republican legislators increased education spending, made slight reductions in the number of teaching positions, and maintained class sizes in most grades.
Between the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years, total education spending rose by $95 million, or a modest $22 per student. State funding, which accounts for two-thirds of public school spending in North Carolina, increased by $322 million, or an average of $200 per student. In per student terms, only 13 of the state's 115 school districts had fewer state dollars than the year before. During the same year, federal funding dropped by $234.5 million -- an average decrease of $173 per student. Finally, localities increased the local appropriation by $7.4 million. Nevertheless, local appropriations did not keep up with statewide enrollment growth and thus reduced spending by an average of $5 per student.
Of course, every year there are education budget winners and losers. The five districts with the largest cuts in total per pupil spending -- Washington, Hyde, Mitchell, Asheboro, and Lexington -- had decreases of between $668 and $827 per student. Despite these budget reductions, per student expenditures in all five districts remained higher than the state average.
On the other hand, Graham, Halifax, Anson, Durham, and Tyrrell public schools were the big winners. These districts enjoyed per student increases ranging from $398 in Graham County to a mind-boggling $1,324 in Tyrrell County. All five districts had per student expenditures that were significantly higher than the state average.
Despite a slight uptick in education funding, state data indicate that the number of classroom teachers dropped by 230 -- or an average of two teachers per school district. According to the N.C. State Report Cards website, North Carolina employed 99,290 teachers during the 2010-11 school year. A year later, the number of classroom teachers fell to 99,060.
For those concerned about class sizes, they increased in one grade only. The average first-grade classroom added an additional student in 2012 to reach 20 students. Kindergarten and second-grade classrooms each had one fewer student, on average, compared to the prior year. Average class sizes in grades three through eight, as well as high school English, math, and science courses, did not change.
While it is satisfying to set the record straight, I contend that funding, staffing levels, and class size inputs mean little in assessing the quality of education in North Carolina. Rather than asking whether the state allocates "enough" resources to provide a quality education, we should be asking "how" public schools spend their money. Maximizing the return on our annual $12 billion investment in public schools is one of the most important reasons to rethink the way we measure educational quality.
Unfortunately, many dismiss the "how" because it requires them to concede that increasing student performance takes much more than reaching some arbitrary amount of spending, number of teachers, or students in a classroom. It takes strategic investments in exceptional educators and proven instructional practices.
Dr. Terry Stoops is director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation.