This story is part of the NPR reporting project “School Money,” a nationwide collaboration between NPR’s Ed Team and 20 member station reporters exploring how states pay for their public schools and why many are failing to meet the needs of their most vulnerable students.
Teacher Leigh Ann Cross says it feels like a scavenger hunt every time she cleans up her high school art room. She finds erasers wedged between books and paintbrushes tucked into flower pots.
“I can stick my hand up in certain spots and pull five or ten paintbrushes,” Cross says.
Her students hide their art supplies after each class because at Rockingham County High School, part of a low-income, rural district along the state's northern border with Virginia, good materials are in short supply. No one wants to get stuck with the old stuff.
When Cross worked at a wealthier, nearby school district, she had an art budget of roughly $7,000 a year. Now, she gets $300.
To make matters worse, state budget cuts have forced her to stretch that money even further. Instead of pottery, students now work with paper mâché. Instead of having another full-time teacher to lean on, Cross now manages a class of 37 students by herself.
While North Carolina did increase per-student funding for public education this year, it’s not enough to make up for cuts made during the Great Recession. Funding for things like instructional supplies, textbooks and teacher assistants has tumbled by almost $1 billion since 2008.
For low-wealth, rural districts like Rockingham County Schools, those kinds of budget cutbacks are especially tough. That’s because, unlike their wealthier counterparts, they have a harder time making up the difference with local property tax dollars.
If there’s any good news here, it’s that things could be even worse.
North Carolina, like many states, sets aside additional money for poor districts and disadvantaged students -- that is, kids who come from a single-parent family, low-income family, or have at least one parent who did not earn a high school diploma. Students who fit those categories have historically underachieved and often require more money to educate effectively.
“If we didn’t have that [money], we’d be in pretty dire straits right now,” says Rodney Shotwell, superintendent of Rockingham County Schools.
This school year, Rockingham got more than $5 million of extra funding from the state for its disadvantaged students. Shotwell says it’s helped pay for teachers, instructional supplies, even custodians.
The state got serious about providing extra funding to low-wealth districts and disadvantaged students back in 1997, when the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in the case Leandro v. State that all students have the right to “an opportunity for a sound, basic education.”
Still, some two decades later, many educators and school experts say that extra money doesn’t go far enough.
“I like the North Carolina model of looking at the specific needs of specific children, but we’re not doing it adequately,” says Gerry Hancock, general counsel of the Low Wealth Schools Consortium.
Hancock says, if you apply the formula officials came up with when they first created the fund for disadvantaged kids, it should be funded closer to $600 or $700 million today. Right now, it’s at about $76 million a year.
As a result, Superintendent Shotwell says his relatively poor, rural district simply can’t compete with the state’s wealthier districts. “There will never be a time that we’re going to be equal.”
Last school year, Rockingham was able to spend about $1,700 per student in local dollars (on top of state and federal funding). Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools spent closer to $5,600. State funding only helped make up roughly $800 of that $3900 difference. In fact, funding disparities between North Carolina’s rich and poor school districts have only grown since the late '90s.
A recent study by the Public School Forum of North Carolina found that in 2013-14, the state's ten highest-spending counties spent an average of $57,497 more per classroom than the ten lowest-spending counties. That's 36 percent higher than it was a decade ago, according to the report.
Because of constraints and state budget cuts, Shotwell says class sizes in Rockingham have been creeping up.
At Rockingham County High School, teacher Angela Wilson leads an advanced English class of 36 students. “I’ve got desks everywhere,” she says, pointing at the tight rows that crowd her room from wall to wall.
For Wilson, effective teaching comes down to building relationships - something she says she can’t do in large classes. “It’s too easy for students to get lost in the crowd,” she explains.
Because of the school’s limited number of teachers, Wilson only teaches core classes. She used to offer a popular journalism course, but the school recently got rid of it.
Over the years, the district has also cut back on teacher assistants -- a lot. A decade ago, Rockingham had more than 390 TAs. Today, there are about 90.
The teacher assistants who still have jobs in the district are also required to get a bus driver’s license. Since the district cut back on the time TAs can work -- from eight to six hours -- most now double up as bus drivers to make up the two hours they lost.
“I wish we could get more so we could boost up the school to where it used to be,” says teacher assistant Sharon Bethel. She starts up the engine of her school bus. “But it is what it is.”