by Dr. Robert Luebke
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
On September 1, the State Department of Public Instruction released state test scores. After two years of school closures and virtual learning, it came as no surprise that North Carolina kids are struggling. Only 45 percent of K-12 students passed recent state reading, math, and science exams. The proficiency rate was 45.6 percent for elementary and middle school students and slightly lower — 44.7 percent — for high school students.
Persistent racial achievement gaps were also visible in the data. The pandemic policies hardened and, in some cases, widened the gaps. For example, Grade 4–8 Reading scores revealed only 45.6 percent of students achieved Grade Level Proficiency (GLP). When broken down by race, the numbers showed a wide disparity. GLP for American Indians was 28.0 percent; for Asians, 72.1 percent; for Blacks, 28.5 percent; for Hispanics, 32.9 percent; and for Whites, 58.7 percent. While the overall numbers were somewhat better than last year in many categories, they still trailed pre-pandemic numbers from 2018-19.
These numbers attest to the reality of learning loss. The federal government has already allotted $200 billion in funding for K-12 schools over the past three years to address learning loss and mitigate the impact of the pandemic-related policies on disadvantaged populations. North Carolina has already received about $6 billion in Covid relief funds for public education. Of the money designated for Covid relief for K-12 education, about 90 percent must be distributed to local education agencies (LEAs). A minimum of 20 percent of that money must be spent on learning loss.
September test data from NC DPI showed plummeting scores. Forty-two percent of K-12 elementary and secondary schools received Ds or Fs on school report cards. Parents, policymakers, and concerned North Carolinians must be wondering: Are funds getting to where they are needed? How are troubled school districts spending the money to help alleviate learning loss?
To answer those questions, we analyzed Covid fund expenditure data for the 20 school districts that had the highest number of low-performing schools and how schools spent federal Covid money. The table below lists school districts, numbers of low performing schools, and the amounts of Covid funds they received, spent, and still have unspent. The chart also provides data on how school districts spent Covid funds.
More than two years since Covid-19 was declared a pandemic, three-quarters of low-performing schools still had not spent 50 percent or more of federal Covid funds.
|School District||Number of Low-Performing Schools||Percentage of Schools That Are Low-Performing||Total Covid Funds Allotted ($millions)||Covid Funds Spent ($millions)||Unspent Covid Funds ($millions)||Percentage of Covid Funds Unspent||Percentage of the Spent Covid Funds Going to Salaries||Percentage of the Spent Covid Funds Going to Supplies and Materials||Percentage of the Spent Covid Funds Going to Tutoring|
|Guilford County Schools||59||50.9%||$366.5||$172.5||$194.0||53%||45%||34%||0.40%|
|Wake County Schools||38||20.3||441.0||247.6||193.4||44||68||11||0.14|
|Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools||35||48.6||275.6||128.2||147.4||53||55||25||1.18|
|Gaston County Schools||24||47.1||133.9||54.3||79.6||59||54||23||0.63|
|Cumberland County Schools||18||22.0||238.7||105.3||133.4||56||52||17||0.61|
|Onslow County Schools||18||46.2||105.1||49.1||56.0||53||33||54||1.58|
|Nash County Schools||15||62.5||70.5||35.8||34.6||49||36||43||2.51|
|Randolph County Schools||15||46.9||61.9||29.2||32.5||53||65||21||0.00|
|Wayne County Public Schools||14||48.3||103.5||52.6||50.9||49||38||39||0.40|
|Buncombe County Public Schools||13||31.0||96.0||53.4||42.5||44||51||19||0.94|
|Harnett County Schools||13||52.0||91.7||31.7||60.0||65||50||26||0.25|
|Pitt County Schools||13||37.0||125.4||50.0||75.3||60||49||25||1.27|
|Durham Public Schools||12||24.0||190.2||77.8||112.3||59||57||22||0.35|
|Iredell-Statesville Public Schools||12||33.3||66.2||37.7||28.5||43||42||14||0.26|
|New Hanover County Schools||12||30.0||108.8||46.9||61.8||57||43||33||0.00|
|Union County Schools||12||24.5||90.8||47.7||43.1||47||67||15||2.36|
|Caldwell County Schools||11||50.0||41.2||19.2||21.9||53||52||27||0.26|
Source: North Carolina Department of Public Instruction
Several findings immediately pop out from the table. School closures over the pandemic prompted federal funding to be directed to districts to remedy learning loss and the address the disparate impacts pandemic-related policies have had on the disadvantaged, yet more than two years since Covid-19 was declared a pandemic, three-quarters of the schools in the table still had not spent 50 percent or more of federal Covid funds. The percentage of unspent funds in low-performing school districts ranged from 68 percent in Rowan-Salisbury to 43 percent in Iredell Statesville. Those districts have 24 and 12 underperforming schools, respectively.
Those 20 low-performing districts have already spent $1.5 billion. Their amount of unspent funds, however, is still higher: $1.8 billion. While they have a clear need to address low-performing schools, the districts seem to be in no hurry to spend funds that were largely appropriated to address emergency educational conditions.
That said, our 20 low-performing school districts have still spent about $1.5 billion in Covid funds. What were schools spending their money on? Most of the money went to teachers for salaries or raises. On average, those districts spent over half (52 percent) of Covid funds on salaries. Thirteen of the districts spent half their Covid relief money on salaries. Spending on salaries varied widely, ranging from a high of 68 percent in Wake County to a low of 33 percent in Onslow County.
The next largest expenditure category was supplies and materials. On average, schools spent 26 percent of Covid funds on supplies and materials, a category including computer equipment. Public records reveal the counties that spent the most on computer equipment were Charlotte-Mecklenburg ($24.4 million), Guilford County ($20.7 million), and Wake County ($11 million).
Earlier this year a consensus emerged that tutoring is the best method to remedy the impacts of learning loss. Are school districts with low-performing schools using tutoring to remedy the impacts of learning loss? According to our data, the 20 districts with the highest number of failing schools spent on average less than one percent (0.85 percent) on tutoring. Fourteen districts spent less than 1 percent, while only three districts spent over 2 percent. Those same twenty districts, on average spent about 9 percent of Covid funding on employee benefits.
Of course, expenditures don’t capture all of what is happening. Leaving 54 percent of federal Covid funds unspent while directing over half the funds that were spent to salaries does, sadly, help explain why our students are still lagging academically. When the cry goes out for additional funds to address the academic problems discussed here, let’s remember that schools have refused to spend billions on needy students and spent nearly nothing on proven methods to remedy learning loss. That schools have been unwilling or unable to solve these problems is a fact that should unsettle parents and policymakers alike.