Archived Opinion

Reality, outcomes and education spending

This deserves emphasis, given the central role that public education plays in North Carolina political debate: our schools have vastly more resources to work with than they did a generation ago.


Education is a good investment. A properly structured education system is worth taxing citizens and spending their money to operate, as it fulfills a core state function: ensuring that future citizens have the knowledge and skills necessary to be informed voters and responsible citizens.

But the underperformance of public education, in North Carolina and in the nation as a whole, cannot be attributed to inadequate funding. Adjusted for inflation and student enrollment, spending on public schools has soared over the past two decades.

In North Carolina, spending per pupil rose more than 60 percent from the mid-1980s (when the Basic Education Plan was enacted by the General Assembly and then-Gov. Jim Hunt) until 2001, a period that included massive increases in funding.

It’s true that since 2001, the inflation-adjusted per-pupil trend in North Carolina has been essentially flat, in part because of fiscal crises and in part because of a massive enrollment surge.

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It wouldn’t be fair to say that none of the additional spending ... has been accompanied by improvements in student performance. In North Carolina, our students actually made significant gains on reliable national tests of core subjects during the early part of the period in question.

But as the full effects of the costly reforms of the mid-1990s kicked in, our performance on national tests actually became less impressive. There were still gains in average scale scores and proficiency levels in math, but North Carolina’s reading performance declined, while its science scores barely budged. More importantly, these scores were for 4th and 8th graders. The final product of an educational system is a well-educated high-school graduate. Unfortunately, there is no evidence of a significant improvement on this measure during the period in question.

Others raised spending more than North Carolina did, and saw their schools perform less impressively than ours.Structural changes should precede any asizeable funding increases.

Writer John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of

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