PHILIP PRICE: The truth about public school funding

Posted April 13, 2017 5:00 a.m. EDT
Updated April 13, 2017 9:33 a.m. EDT

EDITOR'S NOTE: Philip Price is former Chief Financial Officer for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. He retired last month after 35 years at the department.

There has been a lot of discussion over the last year related to how public schools use state funds for kindergarten through third grade classroom teachers. Some state senators continue to ask:

  • What did local school districts do with the money we sent them to reduce class size?
  • Why are they holding art and PE teachers’ jobs hostage for their (school districts) misallocation of classroom teacher funds?

Frankly, the questions are mostly rhetorical. Today we have fewer classroom teachers in K-12 to staff our classrooms and serve 101,640 more students than we did at the start of the Great Recession (the 2008-09 fiscal year). Public school enrollment then was about 1.4 million students and is now more than 1.5 million. We have less teacher assistant funding, fewer guidance counselors, social workers, nurses, and less funding for instructional supplies and textbooks. Here are some facts:

  • School districts are using their K-3 classroom teacher funding according to legislative requirements as they have since 1985 to:
    • Hire English and math teachers.
    • Hire art, music and physical education teachers to provide instruction as mandated in the state’s Basic Education Program. There isn’t any separate state funding for these special subject-area teachers.
  • The new requirement for math and English class ratios will lead to a reduction in the art, music, and physical education teachers in elementary schools.
  • School districts do spend over 50 percent of their state funding on classroom teachers and very little on central office administration (less than 1.1%).
  • The Department of Public Instruction issues annual reports that clearly show how the school districts spend their state dollars (see page 4 of the 2017 Public School Budget Highlights).

The answers, when examining the details, aren’t quite what some of those critical legislators would like us to believe.

Money to Reduce Class Size
It is important to note that overall state funding has never recovered to the pre-Recession (FY 2008-09) level. While the General Assembly has addressed K-3 classroom teaching funding in recent years, the full impact has actually been a cut in overall K-12 classroom teacher spending:

FY 2011-12: Reduced the allotment ratio in grades 1-3 from 1:18 to 1:17. The legislation (SL 2011-0145) also called for an effort to lower class size to 1:15. The same year (2011), local school districts were required to return $429 million in what was termed a “negative allotment” (legislature speak for giving money in one hand and taking it back with the other) called the “Local Education Agency Adjustment.” So, even though local school districts received $62 million for more teachers in grades 1-3, they also had their overall teacher funding cut by almost $429 million – which meant spreading the teachers already hired for K-12 among more students. It would not be a very wise business move, if you were a school district, to hire new teachers while you were eliminating teaching positions to cover the hole in the budget.

FY 2012-13: No additional state funding was made to K-3 classroom teachers; but the local schools budget cuts continued as local school districts were required to “return” $359.7 million of their state funding.

FY 2013-14: Finally, the General Assembly eliminated the so-called “LEA Adjustment” that reduced the state funds local schools received. To do this however, the legislature had to either provide additional funding or reduce the allotment of teachers to school districts by allowing more students per classroom. SL 2013-360 cut $286.4 million in K-12 classroom teacher funding by increasing the class size ratios. Specifically, in K-3, the ratio was increased by 1 in each grade.

FY 2014-15: The General Assembly appropriated $42 million to reduce class size in grades K-1 to the FY 2012-13 allotment levels.

FY 2015-16: No additional money was provided in the teacher allotment ratios.

FY 2016-17: The General Assembly appropriated $27 million to reduce class size in grade 1 to 1:16 (a reduction of 1).

As detailed above, the General Assembly increased classroom teacher funding in grades K-3 by $131 million since FY 2011-12. However, during the same period, the legislature cut K-12 classroom teacher funding by $286.4 million. The reality is that school districts were left with $155 million less to hire more classroom teachers to meet the instructional needs of our students.

How do School Districts find funds for art, music, and PE teachers?
In 1985, the General Assembly developed a road-map of what every school needed to properly educate public school students. The Basic Education Program, updated in 1994, established the rules for class size (see page 49 of the Basic Education Program).

The General Assembly never fully funded the Basic Education Program while adding and changing many of the class size ratios and requirements. At the same time, the allowance of a class size target that is higher than the classroom teacher allotment ratio has remained the same for over 32 years. The allotment ratio must be below the specified class size requirement to offer a full program.

Over the years, the General Assembly allowed the required class size to shift beyond what is outlined in the Basic Education Program. That flexibility has enabled school districts to hire art, music, and PE teachers to meet the instructional requirements in the Basic Education Program without receiving any specific state funding to hire these kinds of teachers.

Where Do We Go from Here?
The bill passed by the House earlier this legislative session (HB 13) would reestablish the class size differential in grades K-3 as outlined in the Basic Education Program and provide local schools the flexibility to meet the arts, music, PE and other instructional requirements. The Senate has not acted on this bill.

While there might be some school districts that may have made bad choices related to how they target their state teacher funding, they have been forced to operate with insufficient funding. They try to focus what funds they do have on what will help their students.

Today the reality is that they have fewer teachers to work with and less support funds for the classroom.

Every day, our local school system administrators, principals, and teachers come to work to improve the lives of our most valuable state resource, our students.

Our senators would be better off if they stopped trying to “expose” fraud and abuse that isn’t there and recognize that schools and students need art, PE, and music teachers.

School districts should be able to use their teacher allotment to hire art, music and PE teachers the same way they have since 1985. Otherwise, the legislature should provide additional funding to hire and pay these teachers.

Legislators should focus on making sure our public schools are given the additional resources they need to properly educate their students rather than trying to find local shortcomings that do not exist.

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