This story originally published online at N.C. Policy Watch. 

According to a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau, North Carolina continues to lag near the bottom of the pack (44th) nationally when it comes to per-pupil spending on K-12 schools.

In 2020, North Carolina spent $9,958 per student on public education—more than $3,500 (or 26.2%) below the national average of $13,494. Only seven states—Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arizona, Utah, and Idaho came in lower. And the advantage over Florida and  Tennessee was very small—just $21 and $62 respectively.

North Carolina’s per-pupil spending was even significantly outpaced by states like West Virginia ($12,375)  South Carolina ($11,532), and Alabama ($10,116). North Carolina came in $996 (or 9%) below the average reported for 17 southern states.

When one adjusts for inflation, the 2020 figure also represented a real dollar decline from the amount our state spent a decade ago, at the start of Republican rule at the North Carolina General Assembly. The per-pupil figure for North Carolina in 2010—the year GOP majorities assumed control of the legislature—was $8,409. At the time, this was $2,206 (or 20.7%) below the national average of $10,615. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator, $8,409 in September of 2010 was worth $10,020 in September of 2020—$62 more than what the state actually spent.

In other words, not only did the state fall farther behind the rest of the country during the past decade, it actually suffered an absolute decline in the total inflation-adjusted per-pupil investment.

And, of course, this decline took place during a period in which North Carolina was subject to a constitutional mandate to provide every child in the state with access to a sound basic education—something that repeated court orders in the landmark Leandro case have determined requires significantly larger public investments.

The bottom line: while appropriations obviously don’t explain everything, it’s hard not to see this new report as just the latest in a long line of damning evidence that North Carolina is failing its children—especially in this era of large budget surpluses that would make it relatively easy to raise investments to (or even well-above) the national average.


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