NC education spending on decades-long slide

North Carolina public schools account for the largest segment of the state budget every year, but that slice of the budget pie has been shrinking for years.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina public schools account for the largest segment of the state budget every year, but that slice of the budget pie has been shrinking for years.

WRAL News reviewed budget numbers for the last 30 years and found that the percentage of general fund dedicated to K-12 classrooms has been on a long, slow slide, even as the total dollars for education increased.

In 1984-85, the $1.89 billion authorized for public education accounted for 43.7 percent of the budget. A decade later, the $4.08 billion authorized in the budget was 42 percent of the 1994-95 budget. By 2004-05, the state was spending $6.52 billion on public schools, which accounted for 41.1 percent of the state budget.

The slide has accelerated in recent years because of the national recession, and the $7.9 billion authorized in the 2013-14 budget meant only 37 percent of the general fund was earmarked for public schools. Even with the North Carolina Education Lottery chipping in money for school construction and early childhood education, per-pupil spending has dropped since the lottery started eight years ago.

"As we take all this money out of things that really affect the classroom, it's hard to see how we're going to improve student achievement," said Matt Ellinwood, an education policy analyst with the left-leaning North Carolina Budget & Tax Center.

Ellinwood sighed when asked why the percentage of the budget dedicated to public schools has consistently dropped over the years.

"It's weird because the question is why would you ever back off of that," he said.

House Minority Leader Larry Hall said education funding became an easy target during economic downturns, and lawmakers never restored what was taken from schools when the economy rebounded.

"I think people have not had the full understanding of education in our overall economy, and so, they've looked for places to take money out of the budget," said Hall, D-Durham. "I think that focus was lost, and we need to get it back."

As the public education slice has been cut, spending on the Department of Health and Human Services, including Medicaid, has accounted for more of the budget pie. Less than 16 percent of the budget went to DHHS 30 years ago, but that is now up to about a quarter of state spending.

WRAL News found that, if K-12 education had the same funding support they did in the mid-1980s, public schools would have an extra $1 billion a year in state money, which could average teacher salaries above the national average and could boost spending on items such as textbooks, where North Carolina now spends only $15 a year per student.

"It's sad. It breaks my heart, but it is the reality we live in," said Katie Holloman, the reigning Teacher of the Year at Oak Grove Elementary School in Cary. "You can only do so much with the resources you have, and I can only give so much of my pocket to the classroom.

"I'm still going to do my job, and I'm still going to serve my children the best way I can, but (a continual money squeeze) changes the way they learn," Holloman said.


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