This week, JLF’s Dr. Terry Stoops published a research brief on K-12 education funding, prompted by the Education Law Center’s recent report “Making the Grade 2019.” Dr. Stoops writes:

[The] report that focuses exclusively on three categories of public school inputs: funding levels, distribution, and effort using data from the 2016-17 school year.

In the report, the more state and local funds spent per student, the better it did in the funding level category.  Funding distribution assessed the relationship between funding and poverty level.  States that do more to provide additional funding to high poverty districts fared better in this category than those that tend to fund low poverty districts at higher levels.  Finally, funding effort is the total state and local revenue divided by the state gross domestic product.  North Carolina received an F in both funding level and funding effort and a C in funding distribution.

Dr. Stoops remarks that the study falls short in that it makes no mention of student performance, nor does it take into account relevant control variables. Stoops explains:

No two states fund public schools in the same way.  Some states rely heavily on state funds.  Others use property taxes to cover the bulk of education expenses.  The size of the public school population, economic factors, tax system, etc. also play notable roles in determining the state’s spending on public schools.  These are meaningful differences that should inform comparisons of North Carolina to any other state.

Regardless, some education commentators have taken up the report to compare school systems. For instance, Ferrel Guillory from EdNC recently wrote:

 “North Carolina ranks 48th on effort, while South Carolina ranks 8th. The difference means that South Carolina has funding levels at the national average while North Carolina, the wealthier state, funds students at a level nearly $4,000 per pupil below the national average.”

A legislative year that is “one for the history books’’ leaves unresolved not only the power struggle within a divided government but also a biting question for a top 10 state: When will North Carolina catch up with South Carolina? (Emphasis added)

Dr. Stoops takes issue with this statement because more money does not simply translate into better outcomes, which is what we should be concerned with. In fact, when studies take into account the proper variables, North Carolina outperforms South Carolina. Dr. Stoops writes:

According to the Urban Institute’s “America’s Gradebook” online tool, after adjusting for age, race/ethnicity, special education status, free and reduced-price lunch eligibility, and English language learner status, fourth- and eighth-grade students in North Carolina outperformed their counterparts in South Carolina in reading and math on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests.  When it comes to student performance, when will South Carolina catch up with North Carolina? (Emphasis added)

Read Dr. Stoops’ full brief here. Watch Dr. Stoops interview on NC school and student performance with Donna Martinez for Carolina Journal Radio here.