Three facts about education in North Carolina you should know

By John Hood

Raleigh, NC – I have strong opinions about education policy in North Carolina and beyond. Maybe you’ve noticed!

I’ve also been researching and writing about the subject for a very long time. During my first stint as a newspaper reporter in 1986, I covered raucous debates about a potential merger of school districts in Nash County, Edgecombe County, Rocky Mount, and Tarboro. My first syndicated columns on education policy ran in state newspapers a few months later.

photo by Taylor Wilcox

By 1989, I was reporting on education controversies from New York to California and writing for such publications as Reason, The Wall Street Journal, and Reader’s Digest. Later, I helped build research teams devoted to education policy. In my current philanthropic role, I helped fund and evaluate such teams in institutions across the country.

Still, neither the strength of my convictions nor the number of years I’ve been expressing them constitute valid reasons for you to accept my opinions at face value.

Moreover, if you passionately disagree with my takes on school choice, teacher compensation, college admissions, or history standards, you need not preface your rebuttals by recounting your own career histories. I already know plenty of people who are brilliant, possess more experience than I have in education policy and practice (with regard to the latter, I’ve only taught at the university level for five years), and think my opinions are entirely wrongheaded. You may well be another member of that not-very-exclusive club.

The political conversation is already chock-full of partisans and performance artists doubting each other’s intelligence, questioning each other’s motives, and calling each other names. That’s toxic and pointless. To the extent I’ve played the game myself in the past, I’m sorry. Let’s try something else.

It might help to try to establish a set of commonly shared facts. To that end, I commend to your attention the latest edition of BEST NC’s publication Facts & Figures: Education in North Carolina. The organization’s name is an acronym: Business for Educational Success and Transformation in North Carolina. BEST NC’s board includes current and former CEOs of some of the state’s biggest and most innovative companies.

Here are three sets of statistics from Facts & Figures that really stuck out to me. First, when it comes to educational finance, North Carolina has a long history of deviating from national norms. Since the 1930s, we’ve funded public schools primarily at the state level, while in most places local funding plays a bigger role. That’s still true. State revenue makes up about 62% of school funding in North Carolina and local revenue only 28%. For the nation as a whole, those two shares are nearly identical (47% and 46% respectively). Similarly, while North Carolina spends less per-pupil than most states do on K-12 education, we spend much more than average on higher education. As a result, in-state tuition for the University of North Carolina system is the fourth lowest in the nation.

Second, and related to that, while state expenditures on K-12 and community colleges have been on the rise in recent years, after adjusting for enrollment and inflation, that’s not the case for the UNC system. At $13,126 per full-time student in 2020-21, state funding for UNC is about 20% lower than it was before the onset of the Great Recession.

Third, COVID-era learning losses have been devastating. The share of students scoring proficient on 2020-21 end-of-grade tests was down substantially from two years earlier. The smallest drop was eight percentage points in eighth-grade reading. The largest was 27 points in fifth-grade math.

These are facts. What they mean, and how policymakers ought to react to them, are matters very much open to debate. I happen to believe that North Carolina should keep local funding to less than 30% of K-12 spending, that UNC’s operating costs needed to be trimmed over the past decade, and that lengthy school closures during the pandemic were unwarranted and disastrous. Disagree? Let’s talk. I’m open to persuasion. Are you?

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, Mountain Folk and Forest Folk, combine epic fantasy with early American history.