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From Research to Policy Change

Eric Houck feature image

Recently, a North Carolina Superior Court judge approved $427 million consent order meant to improve the state’s schools based on the previous Leandro decision. UNC School of Education faculty members, including Peter Halpin and Constance Lindsay, and recent doctoral program graduate Allison Rose Socol produced research cited in the WestEd report that informed the plan. Below, Eric Houck, an associate professor, reflects on one part of the ruling in which his and doctoral student Christopher Needham’s work played a role.

A while back, Christopher Needham, a doctoral student in policy, leadership, and school improvement, and I were looking at North Carolina’s funding mechanism for public schools. It’s what we do. Crunch numbers related to education spending, often here in North Carolina, to make sure the state is providing every student, especially ones with the highest needs, the sound basic education the state is obligated to provide.  

In looking at that funding mechanism, we decided to take a closer look at the cap on the percentage of special education students the state would fund in each district. We were curious about what that 12.5% cap really meant.

How many students were impacted? What were the financial implications for districts? We wrote a paper for the Journal of Educational Finance. The conclusion we came to was that over the 12 years of our study, an average of 62% of districts per year had a higher percentage of special education students than the cap. That amounted to an underfunding of $237 per pupil on average, requiring 10% of all local educational revenues to fill in this budgetary hole, since special educational services are guaranteed under federal law. This unfunded mandate created a burden for local districts. The capped spending on special education created inequalities. 

Some of our findings came up in unrelated testimony on school district size before the Joint Legislative Study Committee on the Division of Local School Administrative Units. And last year, the North Carolina General Assembly raised the cap from 12.5% to 12.75%. This was a small change that had real implications for students.

Knowing that policy often moves incrementally, Chris and I noted the small change, congratulated ourselves, and proceeded on with our current work.

But the issue was not dead. As part of the long-standing Leandro school finance case, Superior Court Judge David Lee recently ruled in a consent decree that the state should “remove 12.75 percent funding cap for students with disabilities to provide supplemental funding for all students with disabilities at the current formula rate,” in addition to other reforms to the North Carolina funding mechanism.

Remove the funding cap. REMOVE. This is a big change. It will help provide much-needed funding to districts and much-needed services to students who absolutely need these resources the most. 

I’m sure our work was not the causal mechanism for this decision. Well, at least I don’t think it was.

But our work added to the discussion. Just having our research used in funding testimony during legislative committee proves that our work, hopefully more often than not, makes it into the right hands, into the hands of decision-makers.

Sometimes we talk about big grants and big publications, but this policy change is the real reason we do what we do. It’s why I pursued this career. It’s what drives me to dig into funding mechanisms. Hey, someone’s gotta do it. Because this is real policy tied to real people.

In this instance, I feel like Christopher and I helped make big change in our small way. For today, that feels plenty good enough.