More $$ for NC inmates than students? Depends how you compare


Pictured above: A marcher in Charlotte displays a sign she carried while demonstrating Thursday, drawing attention to spending on inmates versus students – Picture courtesy of Brian Christansen, FOX 46 Charlotte

Are inmates receiving more of your North Carolina tax dollars than students?

That possibility was raised by teachers and public education advocates who marched in Raleigh and Charlotte this week pushing for better salaries and greater support of schools.

Among the signs carried by marchers were ones comparing what North Carolina spends on inmates to what it spends on students. While specific numbers may have varied, the general argument was clear – North Carolina taxpayers are spending more than three times on inmates each year than they are on students.

So, is that accurate? It depends on how you look at it.

Dollar-for-dollar, funding allocated to an inmate in the North Carolina Department of Corrections is indeed more than three times the funding allocated to the average student in a public school system. According to the Department of Corrections, the average cost to house an inmate was $35,252 in fiscal year 2017. The amount can be lower or higher depending on the security level required by a particular individual.

The average per-pupil spending in the 2016-2017 school year, with child nutrition costs, was $10,026.06. At least some of the signs carried by marchers showed a lower number than this statistic. There are different ways to arrive at the per-pupil dollar amount. We calculated $10,026.06 for this comparison by averaging total per-pupil spending for all public school districts based on data from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction found here. The per-pupil amount is merely an average, not an exact representation of what is actually spent on each student. This amount varies by county, grade level and other factors.

To compare these two numbers, however, is not an apples-to-apples comparison. Inmates receive state services twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. These men and women are being monitored constantly, day and night. To the joy of students and teachers alike, pupils are required to be in the classroom only 185 days a year, or 1025 hours of instructional time.

Looking first at the Department of Corrections, inmates receive 8760 hours of state services in a year (24 hours in a day multiplied by 365 days in a year). Dividing the average cost of confinement by this number equals an average expense of $4.02 per hour for inmates to be held behind bars.

For students, the average per-pupil spending of $10,026.06 divided by 1025 hours of mandated instruction equals $9.78 per hour being spent for their edification.

Do inmates receive more than students in North Carolina? It depends on how you make the comparison and certainly there are other factors that could be considered outside of this simplified assessment.

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