One of the most surprising ads in the U.S. Senate race between Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan and state Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis features a special education teacher from Yadkin County named Judy Wilburn.
Wilburn, a Yadkin County teacher for 17 years, appears in the commercial paid for by Carolina Rising, a group that does not disclose its donors, but is headed by the former state director of Americans for Prosperity, a group backed the Koch brothers. In the ad, Wilburn looks like a central casting version of a favorite former teacher, middle-aged and kindly looking. What she addresses is the claim that Tillis and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory have cut funding for K-12 education.
“As a teacher, when someone gets something wrong, I correct it. So when I see these negative ads, talking about massive budget cuts and textbook shortages, that is incorrect. Thanks to the leadership of Governor McCrory and Speaker Thom Tillis, North Carolina has increased funding for public schools by a billion dollars.”
Wilburn’s chiding is enough to make Democrats go stand in the corner. But in this case it’s the teacher who needs a time-out to go check her math.
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The $1 billion increase Wilburn refers to is deeply misleading. Most of that spending includes state contributions to pension and health funds and salary adjustments. It’s not in any real world sense spending for the education of North Carolina’s public school students.
In the real world, spending for education is down. Wilburn could have learned that by going to the financial officer for her own school district. There has been a slight increase in special education funding, but the overall funding for the 5,400-student Yadkin County school district is down.
Denise Bullin, the executive director of finance for Yadkin County schools, has been in the job for two years. In regard to state funding, she says, “We have experienced a reduction in both years.” As for Wilburn’s televised statements, Bullin said, “I don’t agree with that.”
The state’s funding for Yadkin County schools fell from $30.8 million in 2012-13 to $28.3 million in 2013-14. In the same period, its per pupil funding dropped from $5,371 to $5,040.
Yadkin County stepped in to offset the shortfall with local money. Still, there have been losses. The county had 47 teaching assistant positions last year. Now it has 42. Textbook funding for 5,400 students stands at a paltry $81,000.
Todd Martin, superintendent of Yadkin County schools, says the system has coped with cuts.
“We have done everything we can so that the impact is not felt by our students and teachers,” he says. “I’m sure some impact has been felt, but we’ve done everything we can to minimize that.”
That’s the report from Yadkin County. But the problem is much more severe in larger and fast-growing counties. Nonetheless, people such as state Rep. Paul Stam, an Apex Republican who should know better than anyone about the challenge of crowded and underfunded schools, persist in saying that the GOP gave a $1 billion boost to funding for K-12 education.
Stam, complaining about ads accusing Tillis of presiding over a $500 million cut in state funding for K-12 education, wrote recently in a letter to The News & Observer:
“The total education budget in 2010-11 (last budget passed before Speaker Tillis assumed the role of House Speaker) was $10.8B. The total education budget for 2014-15 is $11.8B. Give this math problem to a 4th grade student, and he or she will tell you that this is a $1 billion increase in education funding.”
Critics of the Republicans’ education funding are not referring to contributions to the teachers retirement and health funds and salary adjustments. They are referring to how much is spent on what directly affects a student’s school experience. That means how much is available for books, teacher assistants, support personnel such as nurses and counselors, and administrators and transportation.
On this score Republican leaders of the General Assembly have failed not only to maintain funding but to keep up with inflation and the increase in students. For the mathematically challenged, here’s how Philip Price, the chief financial officer for the state Department of Public Instruction, explained it in a post this week on DPI’s website. The post lists public school funding since fiscal year 2008-09 (the last FY before the recession forced freezes and cuts):
“If you back out the funding added for benefit cost increases and salary adjustments, the funding available for classroom activities (textbooks, transportation, teacher assistants, teachers, etc.) has been reduced by over $1 billion.” He adds: “Total funding has remained essentially flat since 2008-09 despite an increase of 43,739 students. As a result, districts have had to accomplish more with less money per student.”
Many General Assembly Republicans believe the public schools are bloated with too many teacher assistants, counselors, administrators and operational costs. That’s why they’ve let that funding shrink or lag behind the increase in students. That’s their view and they should vote accordingly. What they shouldn’t do is tighten the schools’ operational budgets and then claim they’ve been generous in funding public schools.