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N&O Editors: Deny WCPSS budget facts

Posted Thursday, January 29, 2015

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Raleigh, NC - “Do you have any interest in reporting the facts?” That’s the question I’d like to ask News & Observer editors after reading the recent editorial, “Time for Wake Schools to Build Back.”

They cherry-picked data and cobbled together shallow or misleading arguments in order to claim the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) needs more money to recover from years of budget cuts by Republicans.

The reality is far different: Despite a long-lasting recession and a dip in support from the federal government, Republicans in the legislature and the county commission generally bolstered education spending in the district.

The editors wrote:

In the last six years, Wake’s per-pupil funding from the state fell from $5,475 to $5,152. County funding dropped from $2,178 to $2,063. Overall, including federal funding and other sources, Wake’s per-pupil funding since 2008 has dropped from $9,092 to $8,517. In terms of inflation-adjusted dollars, the drop is nearly $1,000 per student.
Where do we start? First, let’s acknowledge schools need money to function. That’s not in dispute. What we dispute is the real source of the budget cutting and the many inconvenient facts the editors chose to ignore.

Editors engage in a bit of statistical cherry picking. They start with the high-water funding mark (2008-09), before the recession really hit. Choosing to begin with that data point is obviously going to underline lower budget numbers in subsequent years. They have in essence set up the data to get what they want.

The editors discuss the six-year period 2008-09 to 2013-14 and they discuss the toll budget cuts have made to WCPSS. They fail to mention, however, that Democrats were in charge of writing the state budget for the first three years of the six-year time period when the most substantive budget cuts were made. If you look at the time period when Republicans actually were in control of both Houses of the Legislature (2011-12 to 2013-14), state support for WCPSS consistently climbed.

In fact, in the last two years (2012-13 and 2013-14) state support has eclipsed 2008-09 levels. During the first three years of the period the N&O analyzes, Democrats wrote the state budget and state support per student declined 11.3 percent. Since Republicans took over control of the Legislature, per student state support for WCPSS has actually increased 6.5 percent.

Source: Data from Statistical Profile Online, available at: http://apps.schools.nc.gov/pls/apex/f?p=1:1:0

Source: Data from Statistical Profile Online, available at: http://apps.schools.nc.gov/pls/apex/f?p=1:1:0

However, it’s not just information at the state level that editors chose to ignore. For the first three years of this period (2008-09 to 2010-11), Democrats – not Republicans – were a majority on the Wake County Board of Commissioners and largely wrote the county budget. As you can see from the Table II, during that time period, local per-student expenditures actually declined 12.6. percent. It is true that after Republicans took over the majority on the Board of Wake County Commissioners in 2010, the first year (2011-12) the local per student expenditures for WCPSS declined 6 percent. But overall, when Republicans were in control, local per student expenditures went up 3.4 percent and local per student expenditures for the last two years (2012-13 and 2013-14) actually exceeded $2,146, the level of 2010-11, the last year when Democrats essentially wrote the county budget.

The editors suggest Republicans have underfunded public education and funding has not kept pace with enrollment growth. The facts say otherwise. During the period 2008-2014, enrollment increased about 10.1 percent. Because of the reductions in the middle years, the overall WCPSS budget grew only by 5.4 percent over the period. However, the budget has increased five years in a row and total appropriations the last three years have eclipsed 2008-09 by significant amounts.

And what about school personnel? Back in 2008-09, WCPSS had 17,269 employees. Today WCPSS employs 17,806. Layoffs? Yes, there were some but they were in the middle years. Contrary to conventional wisdom, school personnel numbers are higher now than 2008-09, as they should be since WCPSS also has about 13,000 more students. It’s also important to notice that during this period salary benefits as a percentage of the total WCPSS budget increased from 18 to 24 percent, another looming problem.

Underfunding? Table I shows the state appropriation for the WCPSS budget has increased every year since 2010-11.

If editors are so focused on budget cuts they might have noticed that since 2010-11 Federal per-student expenditures have declined 30 percent. Has anyone heard any criticism of the feds? The N&O doesn’t point this out. In fact, as the table below shows, after the onset of the recession, total per-pupil spending remained remarkably stable. And the worst cuts came under Democratic control.

Control of Legislature
Year
State Expend. Per Student
Fed. Expend. Per Student
Local Expend. Per Student
Total Expend. Per Student
Enrollmnt.
Public School Personnel

Democrat
2008-09
$5,322
$543
$2,457
$8,322
139,574
17,269

Democrat
2009-10
$4,846
$844
$2,196
$7,886
141,194
16,716

Democrat
2010-11
$4,716
$972
$2,146
$7,834
144,856
16,687

Republican
2011-12
$4,969
$896
$2,016
$7,880
146,078
16,879

Republican
2012-13
$5,007
$641
$2,199
$7,848
150,544
17,276

Republican
2013-14
$5,027
$634
$2,219
$7,880
153,803
17,806

Change


-5.50%
16.80%
-9.70%
-5.30%
10.1%
3.1%


Source: Data from Statistical Profile Online, available at: http://apps.schools.nc.gov/pls/apex/f?p=1:1:0

The editors lamented that, unfortunately, not much can be done at the state level to impact funding for WCPSS. Instead, they say, WCPSS supporters should lobby Wake County Commissioners for additional money to replace these cuts. Why? According to the editors, relative to their Northern neighbors, Wake County residents are undertaxed. Surely Wake County residents are willing to pay more to support better schools.

Once again this is muddled thinking. Most states in the North have higher taxes because they fund schools differently. In many northern and Midwestern states, local education is primarily funded through the property tax. Therefore, local taxes in these states are going to be higher. That’s not the case in North Carolina, where about 66 percent of all school funds come from the State.

Editors make the faulty deduction that since Northerners have higher school taxes, therefore they must have better schools. A growing body of research says the there is no strong link between money and quality education. If that’s the case, why not ask our neighbors if they are satisfied with their public schools? I think the editors would be surprised at what Northerners or ex-Northerners would say.

“Time for Wake Schools to Build Back” is a poorly reasoned argument, slapped together in support of a predetermined conclusion. There are many challenges facing WCPSS and we need the help of all in the community to solve these problems. If editors are truly pledged to this task, a commitment to the facts is a good place to start.

 
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