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Goal-driven funding makes a difference in schools

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Sunday, May 20, 2018

The spectacle of more than 15,000 educators protesting on the streets of Raleigh and in the halls of the General Assembly last Wednesday carried a potent message to legislative leaders and to the citizens of North Carolina about public education.

In a very public way educators are calling out the state on the issues that affect schools. Paying teachers a fair wage is part of it. But it's also necessary to provide adequate resources — such as teacher assistants — in classrooms, sound facilities and ensuring a long-term investment that these foundations are maintained.

North Carolina teachers’ protest was in line with what educators in other states across the country have been seeking. From West Virginia and Arizona to Kentucky, Colorado and Oklahoma, teachers and those who support them are taking matters into their own hands to drive home the connection between funding and quality of education.

Before educators were gathering in Raleigh, however, a smaller but equally potent demonstration of the cost-and-effect principle occurred in Currituck County. Bill Dobney, chairman of the county board of education, armed with charts and graphs and a slide presentation, laid out for members of the board two weeks ago a similar message but honed to the example of his county's school system.

Dobney's presentation illustrated how the county's schools, at one time one of the highest performing systems on the state's mandated testing criteria, had dropped significantly in those same rankings with a corresponding decline in adequate funding to the district.

Dobney showed that Currituck was among the top five districts in a number of subjects about 15 years ago — a time, he said, "when we had what I considered appropriate funding.” Dobney is also the former superintendent of Currituck County Schools and was in office about the time when the higher performance levels were achieved.

Currituck schools were, in fact, regularly cited for top performance during that period. One year, he recalled, one Currituck school received a top-tier "school of distinction" ranking while all of the district’s other schools ranked as a "school of excellence."

But in recent rankings, he pointed out, Currituck's school district ranked 31st in the state in 2015-16 and 26th in 2016-17 — still not bad, but not where it used to be.

Dobney went on to draw parallels between the trend of a declining academic performance and the lower funding for the school district over the last decade. Slides he presented showed the district losing $13.4 million between 2009 and 2017 after the state eliminated the “small county” supplemental funding appropriation. Local funding, he pointed out, has not filled the gap and has not increased sufficiently to cover costs of an increased student population or the added costs that come with operating new schools that have been built and opened.

Focusing on the example of a single district, Dobney's presentation illustrates the point — which also applies to the protests in Raleigh — that the level of school funding affects student performance and academic achievement.

And, as he put it, "You can't cut but so much before education is impacted."

And even if funding is not cut, the effect is the same when appropriations are not revised to accommodate growth in student population or to manage the extra costs of smaller class sizes and other mandates required to meet goals on which school performance is measured.

Granted, the Legislature has increased the starting pay for teachers in recent years, including a 4.2 percent increase last year. That's a welcomed boost to education. It helps recruit and retain teachers. Yet, how much it moves the needle in education has to be measured by the larger scale of what it takes to achieve success in the classroom. North Carolina is still ranked at a below-average 37th in teacher pay, about $50,000 a year. And the state's per-pupil allocations are a miserly $9,528 —39th nationally — compared to the U.S. average of $11,934, according to the National Education Association.

As Dobney knows, because he's been there, and as teachers know because they are there, funding makes a difference in education. And it's not just a matter of giving a raise now and then and pointing to how much more teachers get in their paychecks: It's about setting the goals for what North Carolina wants to achieve in public education and finding the resources to achieve them — year after year.

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