On Thursday, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI) published “Funding North Carolina’s Public Schools: Changes Since FY 2008-09.” The two-page note formed the basis of a piece by editorial page editor Ned Barnett (NB) of the News & Observer among others.

I had hoped to provide a more detailed response to both, but most of the John Locke Foundation crew is in Denver for the annual State Policy Network meeting and I will be headed there shortly.

The gist of the N.C. DPI note was straightforward. If you exclude changes to employee salaries and benefits approved by the legislature since 2008, then there have been reductions to state funding for classrooms (per student). DPI reports,

The majority of additional funding since FY 2008-09 has been for benefit and salary changes. There have been reductions to classroom funding. Total funding has remained essentially flat since 08-09 despite an increase of 43,739 students.  (p. 2)

They contend that this is important because parents do not “see” salaries and benefits but do see textbooks, TAs, and the like.  So, parents perceive that there has been a cut to education spending because they see things that have been reduced or cut.  That is probably true.  Polls show that parents often have few details about the financial operations of their schools, including per pupil expenditures and teacher pay.

Perception is not reality, of course.  The truth is that public school children and their parents may benefit in observable ways from the increases in teacher compensation.

For years, the Left has made the argument that higher salaries and better benefits are needed to allow our public schools recruit and retain higher quality teachers.  If this were the case, then parents would have the benefit of a higher performing teacher in the classroom.  After all, teachers are arguably the most important investment in public schools, so one would reason that the additional funding is money well spent.  To put it a little more philosophically, teaching is human-centered activity, so investing in human capital is a sensible strategy.  The Left and the Right may disagree about how to invest in teachers, but I suspect that neither side would dismiss the need to do so.

The main problem, one that is not unique to North Carolina, is that too many children receive no benefit from teacher compensation increases.  Coupled with employment protections, higher pay and better benefits for teachers may further entrench an already underperforming or apathetic cohort of teachers. (Coincidentally, this is a good reason to support incentive or performance pay.)

In the end, I do not think that DPI and NB are suggesting that salaries and benefits do not matter or that teacher compensation is sufficient.  Rather, the argument comes down to one belief that both hold dearly – taxpayers need to shell out much more money for our public schools.  Even if visible spending increased exponentially, both would find something that is “underfunded” in our public school system and devise even more creative methods to “show” just how underfunded it really is.

One more thing:  To my knowledge, this is the first time that DPI conducted such an analysis.  Why now?  Why use this unprecedented method?  After all, this is a curious time to release a report on education spending, particularly when the agency still cannot provide basic information, including Final Average Daily Membership for the 2013-14 school year and mandated cuts to the agency budget for the 2014-15 school year.