The other week I was at a conference for Students for Education Reform when the presenter and state captain, Judy Robbins, gave a presentation about how funding is obtained for schools in North Carolina. She drew her information primarily from the 2014 Local School Finance Study.
What I learned from the the presentation is that most funding for schools comes from the state and federal governments, but around 25% is dependent upon local funding, primarily from property and other forms of local tax. Most local funds go to capital expenses, such as buildings, renovations, furniture, and new buses. The amount of funding spent on these critical resources will vary greatly depending upon the wealth of the county involved.
I had a general sense that all of that was true. What I found shocking was the scale of the variation between different counties. The top 10 wealthiest counties, on average, spend about $2,855 per pupil. The 10 poorest counties, on average, only manage to spend about $672 per pupil. That means that a student in one of the top 10 counties has access to more than 4 times the spending that a student in a poorer county will be able to access. Orange County alone, one of the highest scoring districts in the state, spends as much as the seven poorest counties combined.
Though there are considerable differences in building costs, land costs and the costs of living in given counties, I have a feeling that such a difference will manifest itself in real, felt inequity between schools. I think that we need to be incredibly critical, moving forward in understanding how inequitable funding across the state impacts access to a quality education in different districts. How does local funding impact teacher support, methods of instruction, the buildings within which students sit, extracurricular opportunities, discipline policies, and access to technology? How does that affect achievement and quality of education?
Further, assuming that inequitable funding results in inequitable access to a quality education (as I feel it is reasonably safe to do so), how can we mitigate some of the difference? Should the state or federal government be expected to supplement the local funds of counties such as Swain County which can only spend about $384 per pupil in a community in which the per capita income is only $19,626 and the median household income is only $36,094, compared to Orange County’s per capita income of $34,465 and median household income of $55,569.
Using North Carolina’s Report card system, one can compare the achievement of students at Swain County High and East Chapel Hill High on the English II EOC. The state average is about 51.2% of students being at or above grade level. At Swain County High, only 33.3% test at or above grade level on the English II EOC. At East Chapel Hill High, however, around 83.5% test at or above grade level.
Though, undoubtedly, there are many other factors separating the achievement of Orange County students and Swain County students (outside academic opportunities, presence of books at home, willingness to take test seriously, wealth and educational attainment of parents, etc.) funding, and its impact on the school environment, is not and should not be, an easy obstacle to overlook. Moving forward, funding disparity shouldn’t be considered the only obstacle that students must overcome in order to attain success, but it should be considered one of them.