RALEIGH, N.C. — Members of a new legislative panel agreed Wednesday how $9 billion in state taxpayer money is distributed annually to North Carolina’s public schools is outdated and too complicated, but some warned against simpler plans that remove performance standards.
Directed by colleagues to propose a new funding formula, the Joint Legislative Task Force on Education Finance Reform met for the first time. One leader of the group warned it could take them beyond their current October 2018 deadline to finish the job with a lot of competing interests seeking to protect their share of the funding pie.
“This is going to be a heavy lift for everyone in this committee,” said Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican and task force co-chairman. “You’re going to get a lot of new friends that are coming to tell you how you should distribute money versus how we have been distributing money … (but) our charge is to see what benefits students.”
The panel’s creation follows a November 2016 report by the General Assembly’s government watchdog agency that said the current system is “opaque, overly complex and difficult to understand,” resulting in many of the state’s 115 districts struggling to navigate it.
The report said North Carolina is one of seven states that use an “allotment” system, which means the state identifies categories of services, materials and personnel needed for a school district to teach students. Legislators then provide funding for each of those categories. Money in those categories is then distributed to districts and charter schools based on student population.
North Carolina had 37 different allotments in the 2014-15 school year, according to the report from the Program Evaluation Division. The allotments are replete with exceptions and conditions, the division’s study found, and the ability of districts to transfer funds between allotments makes it hard to know whether earmarked money is meeting its intended purpose.
The allotment for classroom teachers — the largest at roughly $4 billion — favors the wealthiest districts, the report said, while allotments to teach students with disabilities and limited English proficiency result in wide funding disparities between similarly-sized districts.
“We’ve got a very outdated, complicated formula system,” said GOP Sen. Jerry Tillman of Randolph County, a retired school administrator.
The law setting up the task force says a new model should be based on a “weighted” formula, which could set a flat per-pupil funding rate for each student a district teaches. The rate would go up based on monetary premiums to address specific needs for each student. Any proposal would need to approval by the full General Assembly.
Tillman said districts should receive block grants that local school boards and superintendents can spend on what they think is best. “Who knows best how to deal with the students there and improve their test scores?” he asked.
Rep. Hugh Blackwell, a Burke County Republican and education budget-writer, said he supports spending flexibility but said the task force needs to consider how legislators set education standards “so that flexibility doesn’t become simply an opportunity for (districts) to fail to meet the needs of students.”