A primer on state spending

Published June 18, 2020

By Tom Campbell

Many years ago the head of Sears Roebuck’s advertising department reported that half of all the dollars they spent on advertising was wasted, he just didn’t know which half. I recalled that as I pondered the question raised last week as to whether the State of North Carolina spent too much or too little money.
You can bet the ranch some of the approximately $45 billion the state spends each year is wasted but, like the Sears Advertising manager, it’s hard to know which ones. We could get a better handle answering that with two adjustments. First, every agency, every program and every line item in the budget should be, on a staggered basis, zeroed out every three or four years, with future appropriations calculated from that zero basis. This would only be valuable if legislators returned to the time-honored tradition of holding comprehensive open budget hearings to examine programs and determine where dollars are spent, a tradition cast aside in the 1980s. Yes, this would be a time-consuming effort, but would help identify spending priorities as well as programs that might need increased or reduced spending, or even elimination.
Let’s begin our discussion by examining education, where we spend more than 57 cents of every tax dollar. It is arguably the most important function of government.
Before deciding whether we spend too much or too little we must first address the governance question of who is in charge of education. Is it the Governor, State Board of Education, Superintendent of Public Instruction, the legislature or the local school systems? We’ve talked a lot about this but haven’t done much to clarify the issue since the 1971 revision of the constitution. A simply understood governance statement would help us know who is in charge and who to hold accountable if our children don’t get the “sound basic education” guaranteed by that constitution.
Next, let’s repeatedly caution that spending money doesn’t guarantee success. We are spending more total dollars on k-12 education than before the 2008 recession, however the inflation-adjusted amounts are less. A 2018 Department of Public Instruction document says “since 1970, the public schools’ share of the General Fund has decreased by 13.7%. If our public schools were still funded the same percentage as in FY 1969-70, we would have an additional $3 billion for our students.” In 2008, we spent $8,869 per pupil. In inflation-adjusted dollars that sum would now be $10,483, but the actual amount in 2019 was $9,865, some $618 per child less. Using third grade math, that amount multiplied by the 1.6 million students in k-12 education would yield $989 million more dollars. Another yardstick shows that in 2008 our teacher pay ranked 25th and is now 37th in the nation. Other comparisons show similar results.
Here’s my spin: If North Carolina’s goal is to provide outstanding education to our children we need to at least spend the national average, then hold educators accountable for results, measured by nationally accepted tests. We must fully fund our pre-k program and make grades 1-3 our number one priority. If a child can’t read or perform basic math skills by the end of the third grade the odds are against them, not only in education but in life. Every school should have a nurse for physical health and enough counselors to deal with emotional issues.
We must also raise teacher pay to a level where the best and brightest are clamoring to become teachers. We cannot not accept mediocre or poor teachers.
Just as we started school by learning our ABCs these are good suggestions with which to begin.