State lawmakers could overhaul the way $9.4 billion in public school dollars are spent annually, affecting the way that North Carolina’s 1.6 million public school students are educated.
Legislators are looking at changing how the state funds K-12 education following a highly critical legislative staff report that recommended reforming or overhauling the school funding system. Adam Levinson, chief financial officer at the state Department of Public Instruction, urged lawmakers to show caution before making any major changes, but some legislators say an overhaul is needed.
“Yes there are some improvements that are possible,” Levinson said at Wednesday’s meeting of the Joint Legislative Task Force on Education Finance Reform. “There’s relatively low hanging fruit.
“While overhaul is certainly an option, restoring, recalibrating, consolidating could all be considered to achieve your goals before the significant heavy lift of an overhaul.”
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But Sen. Jerry Tillman, a Republican from Archdale, said it’s up to the task force to do the hard work of coming up with a new school funding system.
“If you’re waiting for DPI to come up with a big and bold new plan for funding the schools, you will never see it,” Tillman said. “They will do it in one of two ways: the State Board (of Education) will direct it if we direct the state board or we ourselves propose a plan. Now in this committee is the very time to do something bold.”
It’s uncertain what could result from any potential changes.
Some Republican legislators have urged their fellow task force members not to come up with a system that shifts too much of the money to the larger urban districts. The GOP has more of its political strength in the state’s rural areas and school districts compared to Democrats, who’ve fared better in the urban areas.
Some legislators such as Tillman have urged the group to recommend changes that would increase funding for charter schools, which are taxpayer-funded schools that are exempt from some of the rules that traditional public schools must follow.
The state’s current system for funding schools, with some modifications over the years, dates back to 1985. Money is provided to school districts and charter schools through 37 different categories, such as for textbooks and teachers, in what are called allotments.
A November 2016 report from the General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division (PED) found multiple issues with the allotment system, including charging that it’s illogical, overly complex, not transparent and favored wealthy counties. Examples of issues raised include how all charter schools receive funding for transportation but only 49 percent of schools provide the service.
The PED report recommended reforming the current model or switching to a system called weighted student funding, where schools get a certain amount of money for each student and then additional dollars for characteristics such as if the student is low-income or has a disability.
The report led to the formation of the task force, which has been meeting since last month to develop recommendations on school funding. Republicans account for 16 of the 19 legislators on the task force.
Left-learning groups have been critical of how the task force will not be looking at whether the state is providing enough money for education. Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican and task force co-chairman, has argued that the group first needs to determine whether money is being distributed properly.
On Wednesday, Levinson argued that the state already has a weighted funding model because school districts get additional money for students based on different characteristics such as if they’re limited English proficient or academically gifted. He also questioned several of the findings in the PED report and praised the current funding system as being based on logic and research.
“Clearly some improvement is possible,” Levinson said. “But the extent of that improvement should be considered very carefully.”
Legislators were skeptical of Levinson’s arguments. Sen. Mike Lee, a New Hanover County Republican and task force co-chairman, closed Wednesday’s meeting by talking about how the funding system hasn’t kept up with the changing times.
“I could ask you a multitude of questions that have changed dramatically in the last 10-15 years,” Lee said. “Yet the way we fund education is based upon a system that was in place when my mom was in school and probably when her mom was in school.”