Op-Ed

This is a Republican war on education?

cseward@newsobserver.com

Which North Carolina political party has increased the education budget by more than $1.1 billion since 2011? Answer: the Republicans.

That’s just one fact that undercut the left’s myths about education in North Carolina.

You’ve heard the claim: Republicans have declared “war” on the public schools. Their supposed weapons? Trimmed budgets and low teacher pay. Prominent progressives and liberal Democrats have parroted this narrative in the last two election cycles and will likely continue it for a third.

But is it true? How do Democrats and Republicans in North Carolina actually compare on the issue of funding for education?

In fact, Republicans have a very strong record.

From 2006 to 2011 – when Democrats were in control of the General Assembly and the budget process – funding for K-12 education actually declined by $540 million in inflation-adjusted dollars, or 13 percent. Yes, in the early years, the budget increased about $1 billion, when Democratic lawmakers mistakenly thought a surge in tax receipts would last forever. However, after the Great Recession hit, Democrats cut $1.54 billion from the education budget to address funding shortfalls.

Since taking office in 2011-12, Republicans have actually increased the education budget by $1.1 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars. Under GOP leadership, K-12 appropriations have actually increased in five of the last six budgets.

Democrats counter that funding levels have not yet reached pre-recession levels. Yes, spending was higher in those years. However, much of the spending was for additional staff and bureaucracy – not important instructional time or materials. From 2000 to 2009, student enrollment increased 17 percent. But the number of teachers increased 23 percent while the actual number of school personnel increased 22 percent.

Many say that per-student state support is a better indicator of commitment to education. Yet even then the trends don’t change: State support per pupil declined during the last five years of Democratic control. In 2010-11, the last year of Democratic legislative control, per-student state spending was roughly 5.7 percent lower than it was five years prior, after adjusting for inflation.

Per-pupil spending up

Conversely, in the five years since legislative control shifted to Republicans, per-student support has increased by 6.3 percent, even after adjusting for inflation. (Data are not available for the 2016-17 school year).

Furthermore, with $314 million more for K-12 education in the current budget, there is more than a good chance for another healthy increase in per-student support again for 2016-17.

Teacher pay is another area where Democrats have sought to differentiate themselves from Republicans. But let’s compare two recent six-year periods. The final six years under Democrats up to 2011 produced four pay raises, totaling 21.1 percent in increases. Similarly, teachers received pay raises in four of the last six budget years under Republican control, totaling 15 percent.

Indeed, average teacher pay is up almost $10,000 – more than 20 percent – since the 2013-14 school year. This ranks North Carolina’s teacher pay increases among the highest such raises in the country during this time.

Crowding out the ability to devote more dollars to salary increases, however, is the rising value of benefits such as health insurance, retirement benefits and Social Security. These benefits have increased steadily in periods of both Republican and Democratic control, reaching about $17,600 in 2016 – an alarming increase of 74 percent in 10 years. Adding in benefits, the average teacher’s total compensation is worth over $67,000.

It’s a reality that puts teacher pay in an entirely different light.

Local control, expanded flexibility for districts, school choice and greater accountability are characteristics that help define the Republican vision for education. No matter what the left tries to say to the contrary, dismantling public education via trimmed budgets and low teacher pay is not part of that vision.

Charges about a Republican war on public education have no basis in fact. It‘s a war that is fabricated to energize a dormant political base and one where truth is an early casualty.

Robert Luebke is senior policy analyst for the Civitas Institute, a nonprofit policy organization in Raleigh.

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