By Matt Ellinwood, Policy Analyst for the NC Justice Center’s Education & Law Project
The dramatic cuts in recent years to North Carolina’s education funding system have eliminated vital resources in all of the state’s public schools, but these cuts have fallen hardest on the state’s low-income school districts and students.
North Carolina has plummeted from near the national average to 48th in the nation in per-pupil spending, ahead of only West Virginia and Mississippi. Funding cuts have already had real consequences at schools and in classrooms across the state. Wealthier school districts, like Wake County, have some ability to deal with funding losses by using local revenue to supplement state funding.
Low-income counties do not have this option. Most of their county governments are operating at a deficit in the wake of the Great Recession. Also, property values tend to be low, so raising local tax rates does little to increase revenue. That’s why these schools rely on state funding to cover the costs not only of teacher salaries but also of many critical supplies. But the money has disappeared—textbook funding has been cut by 80%, school bus replacement has been delayed indefinitely, and dropout prevention programs have been eliminated.
46th in the Nation in Teacher Pay
Teachers, the most critical input in children’s education, have been particularly hard hit. Thousands of teacher and teaching assistant positions have been cut, leaving remaining teachers to deal with larger classes of increasingly needy students. Funds for professional development and teacher mentoring programs have been eliminated. Teacher pay has languished to the point where North Carolina has dropped to 46th in the nation for average teacher pay, and teachers earn 15.7% less today in inflation-adjusted dollars than they did in 2002. It takes a teacher with a bachelor’s degree 15 years to make $40,000 per year.
Cuts to teacher salaries and supports are amplified in low-income counties and schools that serve large populations of low-income students. These schools tend to be the hardest to staff. The state puts such a strong emphasis on test scores that teachers are hesitant to go to schools where they will have limited resources to meet their students’ considerable needs. Plus, available teachers are concentrated in higher-income metro areas where quality of life and job prospects for their spouses may be higher.
In order to attract high-quality teachers to low-income schools, salary supplements and enhanced teaching supports are needed. In wake of education cuts of the past five years, low-income areas have lost what little resources they had to attract high-quality teachers.
Cuts Hit NC’s Youngest Students
The education cuts stretch beyond public school to pre-kindergarten. High-quality pre-kindergarten is the educational intervention that has the most positive impact for low-income students. Gaps develop between wealthy and poor students before they even enter kindergarten and persist through graduation and into adulthood. High-quality early education has proven effective at eliminating these gaps before they can undermine a student’s educational progress.
In spite of the overwhelming evidence supporting North Carolina Prekindergarten (NCPK) as a national model for improving the education of low-income students and students with disabilities, NCPK (formerly known as More at Four) was singled out for disproportionately large cuts in the last biennial budget. As a result, there are 20% fewer pre-kindergarten slots than there were in 2010, denying thousands of at-risk students living in poverty the opportunity to start school on a level playing field with their higher-income peers.
Economic Health Hurt by Underfunding Education
The most efficient way to improve graduation rates, proficiency rates, scores on national and international benchmarking tests, and, consequently, the future economic health of the state is by focusing resources on students who are at risk of failing and eradicating the achievement gap. Unfortunately, education funding cuts have produced the opposite effect – singling out lower-income districts and schools for disproportionately large cuts and reducing the already limited resources that these schools had to educate a population of students with higher needs. With vouchers, tax credits, and further reductions to traditional-public-school funding potentially on the horizon, budget cuts will continue to disproportionately hurt the poorest communities across the state.