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New Study Finds Inequalities In School Funding

Disparities are emerging on what role tourism and property value play in how schools are funded.  A study released this week by the nonpartisan group Public School Forum of North Carolina found wide gaps in school funding between the highest and lowest wealth counties.  Even though a majority of public school funding comes from the state, President and Executive Director Keith Poston says these gaps are apparent when wealthier counties factor in additional resources. 

"Where the challenge is and where these gaps start to show up are in individual counties where the courts have ruled that it’s perfectly fine for local county government to add as much additional resources as they wish.  And so what happens is in counties that have high property values and can generate more money locally, they’re able to spend significantly more money on their children and on their schools than our poorer counties and what has happened over time is that gap is gotten larger and larger.”

According to the study, conducted annually for more than 25 years, the ten highest spending counties allocated on average about $3000 per student.  That’s compared to just $710 per student in the ten lowest spending counties.  The disparity in school funding is especially noticeable here in eastern North Carolina as most rural counties farther inland fall well below the state average for spending per student.  However, coastal areas benefit from a tourism driven economy and high property values, so spending per student increases markedly.

“This is the property taxes that the county governments can generate off of beach front cottages.  So, that’s really where you see that.  So you have the big swath from I-95 until you, east, until you get to right along the coast and you see a recovery.”

Poston says the growing gap in the amount that counties spend per student is not because a lack of effort by local governments in poorer parts of the state. 

“The hard thing for these poorer counties is they’re doing everything they can do.  They’re taxing at twice the rate which is not really great from an economic development perspective just to try to maintain basic services for their children.  Whereas a county like Mecklenburg County and Wake County actually taxes at about half the rate, leaves money on the table if you will, that they could be using to fund schools because they don’t have to, because they are able to generate a lot more money because of the property values.”

In the study, disparities in resources available to counties is illustrated by dividing the state into four parts according to adjusted property wealth available per child.  The wealthiest counties have more than five times the taxable property wealth per child compared to the ten poorest counties.  That means the revenue generated in poor counties like Robeson, Greene, Sampson and Wayne, even with doubling the tax rate, comes in substantially lower than wealthier counties. 

Dare County ranks number one for its adjusted property tax base.  Also in the top quartile, Currituck, Carteret, Hyde, New Hanover and Pamlico counties.  All of these counties are located along the immediate coast and have above average spending per student.  However, the majority of counties in eastern North Carolina fall into the bottom quartile.  They include Wilson, Lenoir, Edgecombe, Duplin, Johnston, Wayne, Sampson, Greene and Robeson counties. 

Because of a widening gap in counties’ school spending patterns, Poston says the takeaway is lessened educational opportunities for some students.  Those living in economically thriving counties benefit from higher levels of investment in education than those living in poorer, rural counties. 

“Oh I don’t think there is any question that the educational opportunities and results are different.  In fact, you can look at the school performance grades, which we don’t frankly think are a great measure for how schools are doing, but most of the D and F schools at the bottom of the school grades are concentrated in eastern North Carolina and in counties that serve mostly students from low income backgrounds.”

Poston also sites low teacher salaries and a high teacher turnover rate of 35 to 40 percent as additional challenges for rural counties in eastern North Carolina. 

A proposal currently working its way through the General Assembly would impact the future of education funding across the state.  House Bill 6 would establish a legislative school funding task force that would devise recommendations for K-12 funding. It passed a House vote by an overwhelming margin after several amendments were made and is currently in a senate committee.  

Poston believes education reform is necessary to provide equitable funding for schools across the state.  He says that would mean allocating more money to schools who serve economically challenged populations.

“Children get more educational opportunities just simply by the virtue of where they happen to be born and where they happen to live.  And that’s really not right and it’s something as a state, that kind of uneven investment in our kids continues to hurt us in places like eastern North Carolina.”

The Public School Forum of North Carolina released their Local School Finance Study on Monday.  To read the report, go to:

Jared Brumbaugh is the Assistant General Manager for Public Radio East. An Eastern North Carolina native, Jared began his professional public radio career at Public Radio East while he was a student at Craven Community College earning his degree in Electronics Engineering Technology. During his 15+ years at Public Radio East, he has served as an award-winning journalist, producer, and on-air host. When not at the station, Jared enjoys hiking, traveling, and honing his culinary skills.