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Friday Interview: Public School Funding

Welcome to Carolina Journal Online’s Friday Interview. Today the John Locke Foundation’s Mitch Kokai discusses the funding of public schools with Terry Stoops, the John Locke Foundation’s policy analyst for pre-school, elementary, and secondary education. The interview aired on Carolina Journal Radio (click here to find the station near you).

Kokai: The Public School Forum of North Carolina has this report that says there is a gap, and it’s a growing gap between the richest and the poorest counties and how much money they funnel into education. What should we take out of this report?

Stoops: Well, we should recognize that the report is just looking at the local school finance and not looking at the state and federal contribution. And the state and federal contribution can sometimes equalize a lot of the funding that’s filtered to school districts. So just looking at the local funding is really not enough.

Kokai: Okay, so let’s give people an example. You have something on the neighborhood of — what, 75 percent or so of the public education budget for those school systems comes from the state and federal government — so we’re talking about the margins here.

Stoops: Yeah, that’s correct. Seventy-five percent come from the state and federal government and the bulk of that really comes from the state. The state gives the lion’s share of money to the counties for their schools.

Kokai: So when we’re looking at the Public School Forum report and the media accounts that say “there’s a gap and it’s growing,” is that telling a correct story? Or, is there another way to look at it that would be more appropriate?

Stoops: Well, one way to look at it is to see that some of these — what the Public School Forum considers wealthy counties — also have additional expenses. These are usually high-growth counties like Mecklenburg and Wake that must pay additional funds to recruit and retain teachers, that have additional capital expenses, and that must pay teachers more because there’s a higher cost of living in those counties.

Kokai: One of the other things that we see as part of this debate and argument is, the folks from the public school forum and from other groups say, “Public education has always been a large chunk of the state budget, but our piece of the pie is getting smaller. We’ve got 60 percent at one time and now it’s 58 percent,” or whatever the numbers are at this particular point. So that piece is shrinking. Is that something to be concerned about?

Stoops: Well, it’s actually not shrinking. The amount provided by the General Assembly for K-12 education has actually grown. But as a percentage of the General Assembly’s budget it has declined, but that’s only because there has been a rise in Medicaid costs. So Medicaid expenditures are rising faster, and that makes it appear that the percentage of K-12 funding is shrinking. But the amount is actually growing.

Kokai: So the percentage of K-12 funding in the state budget may be getting smaller relative to the growth of Medicaid, but that doesn’t mean that they’re getting less money, or even that they’re getting a smaller increase than they should.

Stoops: That’s correct. And it also should be noted that the federal government has also been investing more money in K-12 education under the No Child Left Behind Act. So we have not only more money from the state going to local school districts, but the federal government has also increased their share of money going to schools.

Kokai: Is there a better way for us to approach this entire process, Terry? Should we look at this budget in a different way that would give us a better, clearer picture of just how much money is flowing into the schools and whether that is an adequate level?

Stoops: Well, let’s start by looking at the total investment in education — the local, state, federal funds — and funds that are obtained from nonprofit organizations and from other sources. So that’s a good place to start. But I think a better way to look at this is to look at how the money is being spent. We can talk about amounts, we can compare amounts of money, but let’s look at how these monies are being spent in the schools and how effective the schools are using the taxpayers’ money to educate our children.

Kokai: Is there a sense at this point from all of the work you’ve done looking into these issues that the money is being well spent? Or, are there areas where we can tighten the belt quite a bit and not affect those kids in a harmful way at all?

Stoops: Well, that will vary according to county, but there certainly is a lot of waste being recognized in some of these counties. And some employees in Wake County, for example, have come forward and said that there has been waste that they can recognize in the use of cell phones for example. But certainly no one has done the study that needs to be done, looking closely, very closely at how much waste is actually happening across the state within these school districts.

Kokai: Does a report like the one that the Public School Forum of North Carolina put out hurt the cause of trying to ensure that we’re spending money wisely? Or, is it hurting the cause or at least not helping the cause of finding a way for people to look at this issue correctly?

Stoops: Well, I think it is hurting the cause. I think people see that there’s a funding disparity or an alleged funding disparity, they will complain to their county commissioners and their school boards that their school is not gaining as much income as another school district, and that really defeats the purpose of making sure that there’s a quality education being provided for each child. We should be seeing how that money is spent, not complaining that one county is spending more than another.

Kokai: One of the interesting facets of this, of course, is the ongoing reaction to, and legal proceedings in, the Leandro school funding lawsuit. A Wake County Superior Court judge, Howard Manning, is still working through some of these issues, holding various rounds of hearings on the topic. As he moves forward, what, from your educational policy expert standpoint, should he keep in mind about the best way for him to address this?

Stoops: Well, he has recognized that equality in funding is not the issue. All counties shouldn’t receive equal funding. In fact, the Leandro decision is based on adequacy rather than equality, so it’s not talking about how much counties should spend on each student, that it should be an equal amount. The Leandro decision is about the money being spent in a way that’s being really effective. Is it an adequate amount to provide the best education for these students?

Kokai: I think most of the folks who have kids in public schools want those kids to get the best education they can, and I would suspect that many of them would agree that they’d like to put the money in there that’s needed. What’s the best way for them to ensure that their county commissioners and representatives to the General Assembly are keeping that goal in mind?

Stoops: Well, they want to make sure that you have to start with the teachers and make sure that the salary for starting teachers is attractive to recruit the best teachers possible … and hopefully one day we’ll see a merit pay system where we can reward our very best teachers in our schools with the money they deserve for doing great work. And that should be our focus, our number one focus, when it comes to the money that’s being spent in schools and where our money is going.