N.C. falls to 46th in per-pupil spending

By Jane Stancill
The Charlotte Observer

March 10, 2011

North Carolina lost nearly 10,000 public school jobs for the current school year, and the state slipped to 46th in the nation in per-pupil spending, a new report from the state teachers group says.

Although federal stimulus money helped keep many educators employed during the recession, schools in North Carolina cut 4,789 teacher jobs and 2,769 teacher assistants for the current year, according to the forthcoming report from the N.C. Association of Educators. Other reductions hit the ranks of counselors, media specialists, administrators, bus drivers, custodians, secretaries and cafeteria workers. The jobs vanished via attrition, state cuts and reductions forced onto local school districts.

And more cuts are on the way as the state deals with a $2.4 billion shortfall.

With lawmakers looking at substantial budget cuts, the teachers group says the state’s slide in public education funding is under way. North Carolina ranks above only Mississippi in the Southeast in dollars spent per student.

“Education has taken a really hard hit over the last couple of years,” said Sheri Strickland, president of the association. “Even though we know that this is a problem across the country, and all states are having some level of financial difficulty, many of the states have obviously found ways to continue to fund education at a higher level than North Carolina has been able to.”

But state Sen. Bob Rucho, a Republican from Matthews, said he’s not inclined to pay much attention to data from the teachers association.

“If we continue following their pathway, then that’s going to lead to continued disappointment in the results,” Rucho said, noting that too many North Carolina students drop out and too many need remedial help in college.

The report cites data from the state Department of Public Instruction, the National Education Association and a January national report called “Quality Counts” from Education Week magazine. That publication gave North Carolina a “C-plus” overall on a half dozen measures of quality. The state earned a “D” in K-12 achievement and a “B” for the teaching profession. On the spending category, North Carolina got a failing grade.

There has been good news for state education in recent months. North Carolina was a winner of $400 million in the federal government’s Race to the Top grant competition. The money is earmarked for technology, professional development for teachers and turnaround programs for low-performing schools. It can’t be used to backfill budget holes.

In winning the grant, the state promised to improve test scores and graduation rates substantially by 2014. North Carolina is making progress on some measures. For three straight years, high school dropout rates have declined. Still, the four-year graduation rate in North Carolina high schools is 74 percent.

Republicans have pushed for more charter schools, which some Democrats argue could sap too much money from traditional public schools.

Supporters of public schools say that North Carolina, for a time, had leaped ahead of other Southeastern states in many measures – in standards, accountability programs, growth in nationally board certified teachers and better salaries.

A decade ago, North Carolina had climbed to an all-time-high ranking of 20th in the nation in teacher pay; today the state is 45th, according to a ranking by the NEA, the national teachers union.

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