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  • Writer's pictureBenay Hicks

The Intersection of Government and Education in North Carolina

August 2022 | Parker Nelson

The North Carolina educational system has continued to be weakened by the ineffective or detrimental policies of the state government. When we look at the state of education in North Carolina today, can we truthfully believe that we are meeting the needs of every student and low-income region? North Carolina is consistently promoting practices that divide our students by income and race, while failing to address the needs and voices of its own citizens. Two of the key areas that we believe need to be addressed are funding and social policy, because the schools themselves are inadequately equipped to handle the situation and the state has the greatest influence on how schools operate.

To sum up the issue around funding, North Carolina pays for roughly two-thirds of the public schools in the state. And while that number is larger compared to most states, the individual counties are expected to make up the rest of the money, which can be fairly difficult for counties with less people or a lower income population. Additionally, North Carolina spends significantly less money per student than several other states, ranking 47th out of the 50 states and Washington D.C. This has led to the issue of spending disparities across the state, with the top ten highest spending counties spending over four times more money than the ten lowest spending counties. This is despite the ten poorest counties taxing themselves at double the rate of the ten richest counties to try and make up the difference. This situation became such a problem that five counties sued the state in 1994 in a case named “Leandro vs. the state” because they believed that their kids weren’t being given access to sound basic education that was promised by North Carolina. Even though the judge sided with the counties, the state has still failed to address the issue over 20 years later. We aren’t allocating the necessary funds to smaller counties and we are underfunding education state-wide leading to lack of resources to teachers to provide an effective learning environment.

We also see the state fail to address the social needs of our urban and rural communities. One of these issues is racial and income segregation both in schools and in the classroom. The state has eased policies that require schools to accurately represent the demographic of students within their districts and since 1974 we have seen a steady division of students by race. Many districts have taken on neighborhood-based assignment plans along with parental choice plans that offer the illusion of choice when it comes to deciding where your children can go to school. Because many residential areas are already fairly racially segregated, the neighborhood assignment reinforces these pre-existing divisions. Barriers like access to transportation or afterschool care make it difficult to be able to take advantage of programs like the parental choice plan that would allow parents to simply move to a new school. Implementing “social safety nets” would ensure that schools don’t continue to become more segregated by race and income and other measures could be put into place to ease the pressure on teachers.

This is an urgent issue that needs to be addressed soon as we see the quality of education being degraded nationally. We need government programs and policies that directly target the issues we see arising in education. North Carolina students’ quality of education shouldn’t have to suffer based on where their families live, what race they are, how much money their parents make or because teachers aren’t being provided the support they need in the classroom. The reality of the situation is that access to basic education is a fundamental right for all children in the state, so we need to be advocates for better education legislation at the state level.

Here are some quick facts you should know about policy issues in North Carolina:

Last year the public school system enrolled roughly 1.5 million students, and roughly 52% of them are living in poverty. The largest school district is Wake county with 160,000 students, while the smallest school district is Hyde county with 600 students.


  1. The NC school system has a huge disparity in how much funding they allocate to their students by county. This was brought to the attention of the state in 1993 in the case Leandro vs. the State, where five school districts were suing the state for inadequately respecting their kids’ right to sound basic education. Over 20 years later, we still haven’t implemented a solid solution to the problem.

  2. In 2019, the ten highest spending counties spent an average of $3,200 per student, compared to an average of $755 by the 10 lowest spending counties. That is the largest gap recorded since 1987, when the Public School Forum began tracking spending in the state.

  3. Orange county spends the most per student, while Swain county spends the least. The budget per student is roughly 11x greater in Orange county, compared to Swain county.

  4. This is despite the fact that the poorest counties tax themselves at double the rate that the 10 wealthiest counties do ($0.81 compared to $0.44).

  5. Overall, North Carolina ranks 47th out of 50 states and Washington D.C. in spending per student. The state spends roughly 2.3% of GDP on education compared to the national average of 3.4% of GDP.

Early Childhood and Pre-K:

  1. Children in North Carolina aren’t required to start school until they turn 7, shared only by 11 other states. Kindergarten is also not required in North Carolina, something that is shared with 29 other states.

  2. North Carolina participates in state and federal programs that enroll at-risk 4 year olds from low-income families that haven’t participated in other early childhood programs.

  3. To meet these standards you must be at or below 75% of the state median income. Most recently, a family of four can make up to $60,554 and a family of 2 can make up to $41,176 to qualify for the program.

Arising Issues that could benefit from policy intervention:

Two policy issues that we have identified as potentially benefiting from policy intervention are teacher turnover rates and racial/income segregation both at the school level and within classrooms.

  1. During the 20-21 year, 8.2% of NC teachers left the workforce. The most recent year is expected to be a larger number given school year data and staff shortages countrywide.

  2. The state board is proposing that we pay teachers based on a “competency and skill” scale rather than by experience. If this were to be implemented, North Carolina would be the only state to have a system in place to pay teachers this way. Compensation would be based on qualifications and test scores. Subjects not measured by standardized tests would rely on social admin, peer teacher, and student surveys.

  3. The neighborhood-based assignment plan that was implemented in several school districts, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg, along with the parental choice plan continues to reinforce the racial segregation that already exists in urban spaces. Two years from when the plan was introduced in 2002, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system had been almost entirely resegregated.

Policy Topics to Watch

The house committee passed a bill that, if approved, will be put to vote in November to make the state board of education members elected. Many local election board officials are already elected, so this isn’t an entirely new concept, but if this were to pass the election board would become incredibly political and there is a potential that this could threaten the diversity of the state board.


  1. “Annual Local School Finance Study Confirms Vast Funding Disparities across North Carolina.” Public School Forum, 25 Feb. 2019,

  2. Boger, J. School Resegregation: Must the South Turn Back. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press.

  3. “Education Law Center.” North Carolina | Education Law Center,

  4. Granados, Alex. “Bill to Transform State Board of Education Moving through the House.” EducationNC, 30 June 2022,

  5. “Leandro v. State of NC: Background & Resources.” Public School Forum, 7 June 2022,

  6. Mickelson, Roslyn A., Jennifer B. Ayscue, Martha C. Bottia, and Jerry J. Wilson. “The Past, Present, and Future of Brown’s Mandate: A View from North Carolina.” American Behavioral Scientist 66, no. 6 (May 2022): 770–803.

  7. Morris, J.C., Mayer, M.K., Kenter, R.C., & Anderson, R.B. (2021). Policy Making and Southern Distinctiveness (1st ed.). Routledge.

  8. NC DPI,

  9. “School Performance Grades: A Legislative Tool for Stigmatizing Non-White Schools.” North Carolina Justice Center, 10 Feb. 2022,

  10. Rist, Carl, and Ginger Young . “Perspective: What Does College Have to Do with Newborns? Everything, It Turns Out.” EducationNC, 29 June 2022,

  11. Too Many North Carolina Preschoolers Didn’t Receive High-Quality Pre-K.

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