By Ken MacDonald
Whatever you think about whether more money will help children in poor counties get an education as good as those in wealthy places, the disparity grows—the gap in North Carolina is getting worse.
That’s the conclusion of this year’s report about school funding by the Public School Forum. For 33 years the organization has tracked school funding and the disparity between rich and poor counties.
Let this sink in:
“This year’s study found that in 2017-18, the state’s ten counties that spent the most dollars per student averaged $3,305 in local spending per student as compared with the ten that spent the least, which averaged $782 per student. That represents a gap of $2,523 between the top ten and bottom ten counties in local spending, the largest gap since we began tracking this figure in 1987.”
In the study year, Hoke County spent the second-lowest of any county—$535.
Think about what a classroom of 20 could do with an extra $50,460 per year. The difference, the report asserts, is the ability to attract better teachers, offer supplementary resources, and provide a more diverse course selection, “meaning that many students in these districts are unable to access advanced courses or electives that are important in developing college and career readiness.”
Now, it’s true that Hoke County Schools, its hands tied by the county, who, to at least some degree, has its hands tied by a lack of taxable retail and industry, has found some clever ways to mitigate some of this. There’s the energy-efficient cost-saving Sandy Grove Middle, for a small example. For a couple of big ones, consider the partnership with Sandhills Community College to get high school students funneled in to the college lane using Sandhills’ resources. I’m talking about you, SandHoke, dual enrollment, and the newly proposed STEM high school. Another is increased vocational training.
But at the end of the day the big question remains. Is North Carolina really funding its public schools the best way? Should the state take care of instruction and personnel, and leave facilities to counties? Other states take other approaches. Some have counties levy a tax with a set rate, and the state pays whatever is needed beyond that. The crazy folks of Texas have the “Robin Hood” law—taking tax money raised from richer counties and giving it to the poor counties. (Not sure that would fly here.)
Something’s gotta give. In over three decades not much has changed, despite the hand-wringing. The Leandro lawsuit mandate for the state to provide a “sound, basic education” has all but been ignored, and enters a new round of battle. The state legislature goes all Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, but its ballyhooed incremental funding improvements term after term are almost meaningless. Some peoples’ answer is to fend for their own children and abandon public schools altogether.
And here in Hoke County, decades later, we’re 99th in our effort to fund education, and 99th in our six-year average of capital outlay—100th if you factor in low-wealth funding we receive.
You could argue generations of our children have suffered, along with our ability to generate our own economic improvements.
The Local School Finance Study shows it one more time.