“We have always indicated to the people of North Carolina and indeed the world that North Carolina would never abandon its commitment to improve public education and to have the best university and community college system in the world,” said Rep. Rick Glazier (D-Cumberland) at a Democratic news conference. “With this budget, it turns out the Republicans are just indicating we were only kidding.”
That statement seems to sum up the message of most Democrats: the unprecedented budget cuts jeopardize educational quality and reverse the educational progress the state has made. Democrats wasted no time in distancing themselves from the budget and telling citizens how Republican policies are bad for public education.
Yes, it may be justified to dismiss the claims as mere political rhetoric. Certainly conservatives, and many Democrats, have strong differences regarding the best way to improve education. Democrats and liberals believe that is best handled through additional funding and improvement and expansion of the current system. Conversely, Republicans and conservatives contend that expanding educational freedom and infusing competition into the current system are the best ways to improve our schools.
But let’s put that debate aside for the purpose of this article. What does recent history say about Democratic claims? That is, have they prioritized state spending on education in such a way as to match their rhetoric that more funding is the key ingredient to educational improvement?
Testing the Assertion
A review of general funding patterns for the past 30 years is one way to help answer this question as Democrats have long exerted considerable influence over the state’s affairs. For all but eight years between 1982-2010, a Democrat has occupied the governor’s office. Jim Martin, a Republican, held the office from 1985 to 1993. Democrats controlled the Senate for that entire period. In addition — except for 1995-1999 when Republicans had a majority in the House and the 2003-04 term when the election of 60 Democrats and 60 Republicans resulted in co-Republican and co-Democratic House Speakers — Democrats controlled the House. Considering these realities, budgets have been generally reflective of Democratic preferences regarding public education.
Democrats claim the scope of recent budget reductions is unprecedented. Is this true? One useful indicator to gauge public support for education is K-12 state support, adjusted for inflation. Chart I shows 29 years of state support for public education. Aside from the general upward trend line, one observation is quite noticeable. Funding levels track with general business cycles. During flush economic times, state appropriations on K-12 education grow. As the economy, and thus revenue, dips, so does spending on public schools.
A cursory review of the data reveals three previous occasions when funding levels declined or flattened, all of them in concert with economic downturns. Clearly the current decline in K-12 expenditures merely follows historical patterns. If this year’s K-12 budget somehow “turns its back on education” as Gov. Perdue put it, then it merely joins several Democratic budgets of years past.
Now let’s examine the Democrats claim that they treat education funding as a top budgetary priority.
Again, because Democrats controlled the governor’s office for all but eight years and the House and Senate for all but two terms when control was divided, state support for K-12 education is largely reflective of Democratic Party preferences.
Chart II shows total state education spending as a percentage of general fund spending. Spending is tracked for four categories: all public education, K-12, UNC System, and community colleges. Aside from a relatively slow increase in the 1980s, education spending as a percentage of total state spending has been flat or in a slow decline.
K-12 spending as a percentage of all state spending reached its high mark in 1988-1989 (46.5 percent). By 2010-2011, K-12 education spending represented only 37.7 percent of all state spending. Thus as the budget pie has increased, the percentage share devoted to public education has actually decreased. Again, this evidence contradicts Democrat rhetoric.
The percentage of total spending on public education (K-12, community colleges and UNC System) declined even further than K-12 spending, dropping from a high of 68.1 percent (1986-1987) to 55.2 percent in 2008-2009. Spending levels for higher education and community colleges remained generally flat as a share of the total budget throughout this same time period.
A leaner budget for K-12 public education has left Democrats and liberals decrying Republican policies, their uprecedented fallout and the end of North Carolina’s proud history of funding public education. What does history say about these claims?
Three other times over the last 30 years, North Carolina has seen downturns in education spending similar to the current dip. Often times these reductions were exacerbated by overspending in previous years. Republican budget writers are merely going down a road already well paved by Democratic leadership over the past three decades.
Do Republican policies and education spending represent a departure from the state’s longstanding commitment to public education as a top priority? Hardly. The relative importance of education spending as a state priority has been eroding for some time. Since the late 80s, public spending on K-12 education as a percentage of all state funding has been declining. In addition, State funding for the UNC System and community colleges has fallen from a combined 22.6 percent of general fund spending in 1982-83 to 18.4 percent of general fund spending in 2010-11. Thus, even by their own misguided measurement of more taxpayer support of the established education system equalling a “commitment” to improve education, Democrats have failed to live up to their rhetoric.
 Education data is from North Carolina State Budget Summary of Recommendations, 2009-2011, Historical Data Tables. Published by Office of State Budget and Management, Office of the Governor.