Lawmakers say reworking school funding will take time

Posted April 25, 2018 7:50 p.m. EDT
Updated July 13, 2018 1:50 p.m. EDT

— North Carolina hasn't overhauled the formula used to fund public schools for at least 25 years, and lawmakers said Wednesday it's going to take more time to do it again.

House and Senate leaders put together a committee last fall to develop a better way to pay for the operations of both poor, rural school districts and fast-growing urban ones. But Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, who co-chairs the committee, said no proposals will be ready for the General Assembly to consider when it reconvenes next month.

"This is a big deal," Horn said. "This is the biggest thing we do in this state. We had better be careful, be very contemplative, and be really serious – and we are."

Under the current funding model, the state pays districts a set amount for the number of teachers needed and then allocates other money for more than 30 different categories, such as special-needs students or gifted programs.

Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University and a national school funding expert, called North Carolina's system antiquated. Lawmakers should consider switching to a model that pays a set amount for each student and lets schools decide how to use it, she said.

Horn said he worries that could make education even less equitable for rural counties.

"We've got districts that provide no local support for education. They have no tax base," he said. "We've got districts that, when the kids do get their high school diploma, they leave, and they don't come back."

Sen. Rick Horner, R-Wilson, was a longtime school board chairman in Nash County. He said he's wary of big changes and of giving local superintendents too much flexibility.

"I just don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater," Horner said. "I don't believe you turn over 40 percent of the state budget to local superintendents to spend, and we check back in on occasion."

Bruce Mildwurf, associate director of government relations for the North Carolina School Boards Association, said lawmakers should be looking at the adequacy of school funding as well as equity. Any attempt to reform how the state divides up education funding needs to make sure there's enough money there to start with, he said.

"Most counties do not believe the state is supplying an adequate funding level. Year after year, the counties are putting in more and more dollars for day-to-day operations," Mildwurf said.