N.C. ranks almost last in education spending. Here’s how CMS compares

N.C. ranks almost last in education spending. Here’s how CMS compares
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North Carolina consistently ranks on the lower end when comparing state education spending.

Educationdata.org ranks the state 45th in spending at about $9,400 per pupil. South Carolina spends about $10,900, and Virginia’s at about $12,200. The ranking does show that N.C. makes the most of its funding by having the least funds per pupil leftover.

North Carolina education spending, CMS, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

How North Carolina measures up to neighboring states, plus the highest per-pupil spender (New York) and the lowest (Utah). Data courtesy of education data.org.

How it works: School budgets are made up of funds from the federal government, state, county, and federal/other grants. In North Carolina most of that money comes from the state, and the next-biggest chunk comes from local sources. (See chart below).

  • County commissioners hold county wallets and final school budget approval comes from them.

Driving the news: Last week the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board approved the district’s $1.7 billion operating budget for 2021-22 in an 8-1 vote. That lines up with past budgets and with other large districts in the state.

  • Within the budget is a not-yet-approved request from the county for $551.4 million, which will be taken up during the board of commissioners’ budget sessions.
  • The $1.7 billion figure does not include the recent federal funding for COVID-related expenses. (The COVID funding includes $141.9M in coronavirus response and relief supplemental appropriations money and $317.5M in American Rescue Plan money, and it’s separate from this operating budget.)

Among other things, the district says this budget includes funding to give students access to more emotional and social support and to address the worsening disparities facing Black and brown students.


“Our students’ social and emotional health has been impacted and we need to invest in resources to help our students process the very real impacts of the pandemic,” superintendent Earnest Winston said during his budget presentation at the April 27 board meeting.

CMS 2021-22 budget, Charlotte Mecklenburg schools

District finance overview. Courtesy of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

By comparison: Wake County Schools is awaiting approval of its proposed $1.9B operating budget, as are Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools (proposed $792M operating budget) and Guilford County Schools (proposed $743M operating budget).

Why it matters: Well, depends on who you ask.

Folks with a “you get what you pay for” mentality advocate for more spending in order to attract quality teachers and provide students with a better education. Money plays a larger role in rural areas with fewer taxpayers, and also in lower income areas where influential booster clubs and wealthy parents can’t subsidize school spending.

  • Recently the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, which also ranks North Carolina near the bottom in education spending, said education spending could have an impact how states mitigate disparities exacerbated by the pandemic.

The other side: There’s an argument that spending doesn’t determine the quality of education that a state or district can provide. People often point to New York, the state with the highest school spending as an example.

  • Despite spending more, New York’s public school students tend to test on par with students in other states.

“The argument essentially is not just to spend more, I think it’s to spend more in the right places in ways that are smart and responsive to the needs of students,” state board of education member-at-large James Ford tells me.

Go deeper:¬†We can’t talk about budgets in North Carolina without talking about the Leandro case, which led to a state Supreme Court ruling that says every student has a state constitutional right to a sound, basic education.

The decades-long case has been in and out of courtrooms and legislation since the 90s because, according to those in favor of the ruling, North Carolina still hasn’t reached the sound, basic standard that Leandro requires for every student.

“I think that we need to begin to shift our mentality to recognizing these expenditures as investments,” Ford says.

“Budgets themselves are moral documents and they reflect a level of priority.”

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