by Dr. Robert Luebke
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
How much state money should the public schools receive? Many Republican and conservative legislators find that to be a ticklish question. Traditionally, both groups have been skeptical of modern educational methods, and neither group has ever bought the canard that more spending equates to better educational outcomes. Their uneasiness is also rooted in the fact that teachers’ unions and much of the educational establishment are aligned with progressive ideals. Hence, the views of such groups seldom coincide with Republican or conservative values.
Despite these truths, legislators must face two cold realities that press the issue. First, the public school system is the largest employer in many counties. Second, schools and school activities are often the center of community life.
How are conservative and Republican lawmakers balancing these crosscurrents? In the recent state budget, Republican lawmakers attempted to harmonize these competing interests via a variety of “special appropriations.” Making matters worse, much of these appropriations are funded via newly created “reserve” funds, keeping them out of the General Fund spending total.
A review of the 2023-24 budget documents reveals that General Fund spending increased at a healthy pace (about 9 percent over the previous year).
The Joint Conference Committee Report on the Current Appropriations Act of 2023 (See pages F40–F115) shows a whopping $1.2 billion in “special appropriations” to be distributed in grants to governments, schools, colleges, and community organizations.
That total is unprecedented. According to the Appropriations Act of 2021, the General Assembly appropriated $31.9 million in special appropriations, but none of those funds were designated specifically for education. The numerical disparity between the special appropriations in the two budgets speaks to the magnitude of the changes in this year’s budget.
But back to this year’s special appropriations. What specifically is the money used for?
Of the $1.2 billion in special appropriations, almost $75 million — an understandably small but nevertheless significant percentage of the total appropriations — was earmarked for a variety of educational purposes, ranging from $2.5 million to help Alexander County make “turf field and stadium renovations” to a $25,000 grant to help the Durham Public Schools Foundation finance the “Teacher’s Industry Fellowship program.”
Let’s break it down even further. Of the almost $75 million in special appropriations for schools and education organizations, about 10 percent ($7.6 million) went towards grants for community projects in the schools or to community organizations working with the schools. Another 7 percent ($5.1 million) was provided as support for schools’ academic, cultural, and historical programs. The remaining 83 percent ($62 million) was appropriated for upgrades and capital expenses (e.g., athletic fields, lighting, stadiums, and locker rooms) for school or district athletics programs.
Before Republicans became the majority party in 2011, they would frequently criticize Democrats for using state money to fund the special pet projects of various legislators, and they were justified in doing so. Judging by the recently passed 2023-25 state budget, however, it seems Republicans have largely forgotten those words.
North Carolina has long had a policy that the state funds current instructional expenses while local districts are responsible for capital costs. Of course, there have been exceptions to help local districts with capital costs (e.g., the North Carolina Education Lottery and needs-based Public school construction grants). Such programs, however, allow all eligible counties — not just a limited number — to apply for funding for capital costs, and they allow counties to be on equal footing with each other regarding eligibility for state assistance. The budget shenanigans described in this article, on the other hand, are meant to get Republicans elected while conveying that lawmakers are holding the line on spending — even when they are not. The enormous amount of spending on special appropriations makes a mockery of the state’s policies and its attempts to help local districts with capital costs.
Local pork projects and budget gimmicks were wrong in the past, and they are wrong now — even when they are intended to help some needy schools. It’s bad policy, and it makes a compelling case that North Carolina should look closely at eliminating special appropriations funding.