Critics of the Scotland County school system’s mandated funding formula say that it comes with a considerable price tag.
But what are county taxpayers getting for that investment? Not as much as one might think, according to a recent study.
The argument that the school funding floor may not be such a positive investment is supported by a study performed last year by Jennifer Butler, then a student in the University of North Carolina’s Master of Public Administration program.
Butler, a 25-year resident of Scotland County, tackled the topic to create quantitative research on a highly contested topic in the county. She is the daughter-in-law of former County Commissioner Leon Butler.
“These research questions evolved from untested assumptions that I heard as a member of the community for a long time,” Butler said. “I was curious what the data would tell me if I tested the assumptions.”
The study, entitled “Scotland County’s School Funding Floor: Does It Provide A Positive Return on Investment?, served as the capstone project required for Butler to complete an M.P.A. degree, which she did in 2011.
“I first had to determine if the mandate affects the county’s local contribution — in other words, does the county spend more or less than other North Carolina counties, statistically speaking,” Butler said. “Second, I had to determine if spending results in higher levels of student performance.”
Butler’s study controlled for a total of 15 factors that influence local contributions, including per capita income, the property tax base, and number of employees in the school system. The study concluded that because of the school floor, Scotland County spends more on the public school system than it otherwise would.
“I have to collect all of that data for all of those other factors so that statistically I could control for those other variables, so that you have a more accurate picture of the relationship that you’re looking at - in this case between the mandate and total education dollars,” Butler said. “It sort of levels up and makes the comparison equal statistically speaking; it makes a comparison in the relationship - you expect it to be x, but you actually see that it’s y.”
Based upon data collected from North Carolina’s 115 Local Education Agencies for the five fiscal years from 2004-2005 to 2008-2009, the study found that Scotland County’s local current expense expenditures would be $614 per pupil, or $4.1 million annually, if it were not for the school floor.
However, rather than spending $20.5 million over five years, the school funding law required local expenditures of $49 million in the study’s five-year span. That breaks down to$9.8 million annually, or $1,467 per pupil annually.
“This study does not say whether Scotland County underfunds or overfunds the school system, only that Scotland County’s local contribution is statistically, significantly different than all other North Carolina counties by approximately $5.6 million more than would otherwise be predicted annually, and that difference is attributed to the mandate,” Butler said.
Butler’s study also found that the increased level of funding relative to North Carolina’s other school systems does not appreciably enhance the performance of Scotland County’s students.
Controlling for factors like socioeconomic status and student demographics, per pupil expenditure demonstrated no significant influence on student performance on End of Grade reading and math tests, End of Course tests in English I and Algebra I and II, SATs, or on the graduation rate.
“This study does not say that money never matters, only that spending alone does not result in higher levels of student achievement,” Butler said.
The study argues only that there is no direct correlation between gross expenditures and student achievement. Butler suggested that how dollars are allocated within the school system is of far greater importance.
“The available evidence across the literature, including this study, suggests that there is no direct relationship between expenditures and student performance. In fact, research posits that ‘when it comes to student expenditures, it appears that it is much more important how the money is expended than how much money is expended,’” Butler’s study cited.
Former County Commissioner Clint Willis, an opponent of the school floor, also questions how the system spends money.
“The county has no say in how many assistant superintendents we have for administration or how many assistant superintendents we have for curriculum or how many assistant superintendents we have for anything,” said Willis. “The teachers are where the rubber meets the road and they are the ones who teach our kids, but they’re not the ones getting the money.”
Willis also said that his own independent research among neighboring counties seems to indicate that Scotland County spends far more than its neighbors for the same results.
“I did a survey of the surrounding counties: Hoke County, Richmond County, Moore County, Cumberland County, Robeson County, and Columbus County and got statistics on what it costs per pupil per year in each of those counties, and then I tied it into the graduation rates in each of those counties,” said Willis. “What I found out is that we’re paying twice the amount per student than any of them and getting the same or slightly less graduation rate.”
As Scotland County is the only North Carolina county with a mandated funding level, the North Carolina School Budget and Fiscal Control Act outlines the process of determining school funding elsewhere. Specific local funding levels are left largely to the discretion of school boards and boards of county commissioners in each individual county.
As Article 31 of the act states: “The board of county commissioners shall complete its action on the school budget on or before July 1, or such later date as may be agreeable to the board of education. The commissioners shall determine the amount of county revenues to be appropriated in the county budget ordinance to the local school administrative unit for the budget year.”
But this method of annual or semiannual negotiations brings about its own portfolio of issues.
“There are lots of school systems and counties across the state that are continuously arguing with each other to the point that, many times, school systems are suing counties over lack of funding,” said Commissioner Guy McCook. “I think having a funding formula in place is certainly a way to prevent that from happening.”
The School Budget and Fiscal Control Act encourages school and county boards to plan ahead: “In particular, the boards are encouraged to asses the school capital outlay needs, to develop and update a joint five-year plan for meeting those needs, and to consider this plan in the preparation and approval of this year’s budget.”
Whether or not boards meet regularly and the whether or not planning is effectual is left to work out on a case-by-case basis.
“The reason that [the school floor] came into effect made sense to the people at that time, but as I attend the education committee meetings with the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, I can say that we’re better off than we think we are,” said Commissioner Joyce McDow. “We don’t have to have a big argument about school funding, because it’s legislated.”The full text of Butler's study can be found attached to this article or at www.mpa.unc.edu/node/92 under "Budget and Taxes."