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N.C. Spending Gap Continues To Widen, Study Finds

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The gulf between North Carolina's richest and poorest school districts is widening despite an effort by the legislature to close the gap, a recent study of local school finance says.

The difference between what wealthy and poor counties spend on their students has risen to more than $1,000, according to the report by the Public School Forum in Raleigh. Looking solely at local funds, the 10 wealthiest counties spend $1,441 per student and the bottom 10 spend $431 this year, the study found.

A special fund for small and poor school systems enacted by the legislature in 1991 has generated $41 million to narrow disparities, but once the state help is portioned out, it amounts to only $37 more per student a year for poor districts, the report says.

"The gap continues to widen year after year," said John Dornan, the executive director of the forum, a statewide citizens' group. "Poorer counties are having to tax themselves at a rate that would lead to rebellion in wealthier counties." But they still don't reach the revenue levels of affluent counties.

Poorer counties have smaller tax bases from which to draw property-tax revenue. To meet school budgets, residents often have to pay at a substantially higher tax rate than in well-to-do districts, but the poor districts still raise less money.

The report found that 70 of the state's 100 counties fall below the state average for adjusted property-tax wealth per student. Moreover, in the 10 richest counties, the amount of taxable property wealth per student rose by more than $15,000 last year, to $554,349. The same figure for the 10 poorest counties dropped $714 per student last year, to $152,424.

The list of North Carolina's wealthiest counties includes major cities and retirement communities, while its poorest counties are heavily dominated by rural towns in the eastern part of the state and mountain communities to the west.

Inequities play out in all facets of education, Mr. Dornan said. Poor districts have dire facilities needs and often offer only a bare-bones curriculum without advanced math and science courses, up-to-date technology, and foreign language programs.

"The differences are stark," he said.

Constitutional Challenge

The findings come on the eve of a long-awaited decision from the state supreme court over whether a lawsuit challenging the state's finance system will go to trial.

The suit--brought by five poor counties in May 1994--seeks to throw out a system that the plaintiffs contend shortchanges students and does not provide the "general and uniform system of free public schools" promised in the state constitution.

"The people have a right to the privilege of education," the North Carolina Constitution says, "and it is the duty of the state to guard and maintain that right."

Soon after filing the lawsuit, the plaintiffs were joined by a coalition of the state's largest school systems, which contend that the finance system is as unfair for large, urban districts as it is for poorer, rural ones.

Similar lawsuits and subsequent court rulings in other states have forced lawmakers from New Jersey to Montana to overhaul their school finance systems.

State school officials concede that funding disparities in North Carolina do exist, but say that in recent years state agencies have been moving to address the needs of poorer counties.

"We're all pushing for more resources" for needy schools, said Philip Price, the assistant director for school business for the North Carolina education department. He said the state's finance system is unlike those of other states. Because 70 percent of overall school funds come from the state, the deviation from rich to poor districts is smaller than in other states.

The system, Mr. Price said, "has changed a lot since the lawsuit was filed in 1991. It's almost not comparable to when we started."

A $1.8 billion school facilities bond on this week's state ballot would distribute facilities money partly based on wealth--another step toward equity, backers said.

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