Last year, 115 school districts in North Carolina spent almost $17 billion in state, local, and federal funding to educate children in grades kindergarten through 12. The overwhelming majority of those funds ($10 billion) was state money, which accounted for 60 percent of all funding. While most of this money is targeted for an intended purpose, school districts largely decide how to spend these resources. The variability in spending and educational outcomes among school districts attests to the fact that how money is spent is as important as how much.

While the state distributes funding to school districts, schools largely decide how they spend the money.

That being said, are there steps the legislature can take to help improve educational outcomes and how school districts spend money? That’s the question the Edunomics Lab, an education finance research center at Georgetown University, addresses in its weekly newsletter.

The newsletter suggests there are five steps lawmakers can take to help maximize the value of every dollar sent to school districts and to improve educational outcomes. They include:

  1. Tying discussion of student outcomes to budget decisions. Too often budgets get discussed at one meeting and test scores or outcomes at another. The two need to be linked. State laws can mandate that district test scores be part of budget packages. Doing so can encourage a serious discussion on education rates of return.
  2. Requiring school board members to have finance training. The lack of any finance or budget training among school board members is often a reason for poor budgeting or failure to realize important trade-offs when debating budget decisions. Requiring additional training is a relatively inexpensive way to get better budgets and outcomes.
  3. Keeping benefits in check. The increase in benefits is one of the biggest cost drivers in school budgets. And it’s been largely underreported. Too many districts have failed to take meaningful steps to bring down health care and retirement costs. How bad is the problem in North Carolina? Read about the rising cost of benefits here and here.
  4. Requiring school districts to publish budgets multiple years out. This is especially important now, when the end of Covid-relief funding will force many tough budget decisions. It will also require districts to think past federal dollars and envision funding without current levels of federal funding.
  5. Supporting and intervening in fiscally mismanaged districts. State government must be the backstop to ensure that school districts are spending money wisely and students are achieving the desired educational outcomes. Vigorous auditing and active intervention by the Department of Public Instruction can further those ends.

Funding for K-12 public schools is the largest expenditure in the state budget. Isn’t it time for state government to take meaningful steps to ensure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and students have access to a quality education?