- Education spending under Democrats, Republicans compared
- Data show Democrats authored significant cuts to education
- GOP-led budgets and per-pupil spending are increasing over time
“North Carolina is waging war against public education. The pathway that brought us here has been paved with underfunded budgets, tactical strikes against public school teachers, fundamental changes in charter school operations, the diversion of public funds to private or religious and the erosion of our hallowed University of North Carolina system.” — James Hogan, “The War on North Carolina’s Public Schools,” printed in the Washington Post, Aug. 9, 2015
Anyone living in North Carolina the last few years has witnessed a heated battle about the funding and the future of public education. Since 2010, when voters gave Republicans majority control of the North Carolina legislature for the first time in over one hundred years, there has been a discernible change in the direction of education policy. Republicans began to emphasize accountability, higher academic standards, school choice, helping failing schools, and expanding educational opportunity.
The changes have attracted many critics. Along the way, Democrats and their media allies have accused Republicans of cutting budgets, gutting the schools, taking education backwards and even “waging war” on education.
Actual budget figures, however, show that such rhetoric turns out to be wrong.
It is important to remember we are not arguing that pouring more money into the status quo public school system automatically translates into better schools. The last forty years proves that is not the case. Of course money is important. However, so are policy outcomes and providing parents access to quality education options. Disagreements persist about budget levels, per pupil state support and trend lines. Hopefully a review of the facts will end those.
Instead of declining education budgets, Republican-led legislatures actually have an upward trend line in budgets and per-pupil spending which contrasts to the last two years of Democratic control. Let’s take a closer look at the data.
With this year’s legislative session over, Republicans have been in charge of writing education policy and budgeting for six years. This chart tells the story:
Source: North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and North Carolina General Assembly. Conversion to constant dollars made using inflation calculator available at: www.usinflationcalculator.com
Chart I provides a graph of general fund support for K-12 public schools in constant 2016 dollars (i.e. adjusted for inflation). It’s important to note that during the first six years of the graph, 2005-06 to 2010-11, Democrats controlled the North Carolina General Assembly. Thus, education policy and budget writing were controlled by the Democrats. The 2011-12 was the first budget that reflected the change in leadership. 
Also, up to 2012-13, a Democrat held the Governor’s Office. Since 2013, a Republican, Pat McCrory, has been governor.
So what can we learn from the chart? Under Democrats, the K-12 education budget increased $1 billion in constant dollars from 2005-06 to 2008-09. However during the next two years of the Great Recession, Democrats cut more than $1.54 billion from the K-12 education budget. Funding from the beginning of the period (2005-06) until the end of the period (2010-11) actually declined by $540 million – or about $90 million annually. (Keep in mind, these dollar figures are adjusted for inflation and translated into 2016 dollars).
How do these numbers compare with the following six years of Republican control?
Republicans have increased appropriations – even after adjusting for inflation – for K-12 public education in five of the six budgets they have overseen since taking office in 2011-12. The year when appropriations actually declined (FY 2013-14), the budget declined slightly from $8.01 billion to $7.95 billion. When compared to the Democrats’ last budget in 2010-11, the last six Republican budgets have actually added $1.11 billion in real (i.e. inflation-adjusted) dollars to K-12 public schools. Thus, the general trend in state funding for education over the period is definitely upward. While totals haven’t reached pre-recession levels yet (more on that later) the general trend line certainly upends conventional wisdom.
Some will say that budgets have grown during Republican control in part because of budget reductions made during the Great Recession and simply because the overall number of public school students in North Carolina has increased. But that isn’t entirely true. Let us look at a chart on state support per student.
Per student spending in NC
Source: North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. Conversion to constant dollars made using inflation calculator. Available at: www.usinflationcalculator.com
Chart II maps the change in per student support in constant dollars (2016) from 2005-06 to 2015-16. Again, the first six columns are years when Democrats controlled the legislature as well as the education budget. The last five years 2011-12 to 2015-16 are years when Republicans controlled the budget process. Republican budgets are represented by five columns – not six – since state support per student figures are not yet available for 2016-17.
A quick review shows inflation-adjusted, per student state support increased from $5,864 (2005-06) to $6,409 (2008-09), a net increase of $545 per student. However, those gains were largely wiped out by budget reductions Democrats authorized in 2009-10 and 2010-11. Over the six-year time period ending in 2010-11, real per student state support actually declined from a high of $6,409 (2008-09) to $5,531 in 2001-11, a real decline of 13 percent.
The columns 2011-12 to 2015-16 reflect years when Republicans largely controlled the writing of the state budget. So what impact did they have on K-12 education funding? After an increase of $97 in real per pupil support to $5,628 in 2011-12, per student support declined over the next two years to $5,488 (2013-14). Since then strong increases the last two years have raised per student support to $5,881. Since 2010-11, state support per pupil actually increased a net $350 per student. And based on the addition of $314 million to the K-12 public school budget, there is more than a good chance that per student support will again increase in 2016-17. This compares to the final six-year period under Democratic control, when state support per student actually declined by $333.
This article was rewritten to correct an error in converting current dollars to constant dollars. While I regret the error, the new analysis does not change two fundamental truths: (1) Republican support for K-12 public education has been increasing – not decreasing; and (2) the most significant cuts to public education over the last 12 years have come while Democrats controlled the General Assembly. These realities upend the conventional wisdom and are facts that not even NC Policy Watch can ignore.
Democrats claim that funding levels have not yet reached pre-recession levels. While that’s true, what exactly is special about the high-water funding levels of 2007-08 and 2008-09? Were North Carolina schools performing well? Hardly; here are some facts. In 2008-09 4.27 percent of students in grades 9 through 12 dropped out of school. From 2005 to 2009 – a period when the K-12 education budget grew dramatically – the combined math and reading SAT scores for North Carolina students remained essentially flat and consistently below the national average. In 2007-08, only 51 percent of all students passed both math and reading End-of-Grade tests.
About 60 percent of the funding reductions were made from the administrative personnel side – such as reductions in non-certified personnel, administrators and instructional support staff. The remainder of the reductions were imposed on teachers: about 5,000 state-funded teachers were let go between 2009 and 2012. The cuts were made necessary in part by growing administrative bloat. From 2000 to 2009 while ADM enrollment increased 17 percent, the number of teachers increased 23 percent and school personnel increased 22 percent. The number of administrators, instructional support and non-certified personnel in schools had all increased dramatically during the 2000s. A number of sources have chronicled the surge in school staffing in North Carolina and nationally (see here, here and here).
The bottom line is this: Since assuming majority control of the legislature in 2011, Republicans have actually added over $1.11 billion to the K-12 education budget, even after adjusting for inflation. In addition, state support per student (also adjusted for inflation) has increased from $5,531 to $5,881 in 2015-16. All these trends stand in marked contrast to the “war against public education” narrative being advanced by Democrats and the liberal media.
There are arguments to be had regarding how to best improve education for North Carolina’s children. Hopefully, those questions generate a healthy discussion rooted in facts.
In part II of this article, we compare how teachers and teacher salaries have fared under Democrat and Republican leadership.
Last week an earlier version of this article was released. Unfortunately it contained an error in how constant dollar figures were calculated. This article contains new figures with corrections. We apologize for the error.
For a comprehensive overview of North Carolina education policy dating back to 1985, read the Civitas Institute’s Public Policy Series guide to education.
 Although Republican won legislative majorities in 2010, the budget process was already started; the first full budget year where Republicans held leadership positions was 2011-12.