Which North Carolina political party has increased the education budget by more than $1.1 billion since 2011?
Answer: the Republicans.
Maybe that surprises you. But that’s just one of real facts 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. A comparison of recent budgets shows why.
For the period 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 of the period, the budget increased about $1 billion, when Democrat 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 2000-2009, 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 Democrat control. In 2010-11, the last year of Democrat legislative control, per student state spending was roughly 5.7 percent lower than it was five years prior, after adjusting for inflation.
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 is not yet available for the 2016-17 school year).
Furthermore, with the addition in the current budget of $314 million more for K-12 education, there is more than a good chance for another healthy increase in per student support yet again for 2016-17.
Teacher pay is another area where Democrats have sought to differentiate themselves from Republicans. Have Republican policies on teacher pay really hurt teachers? Again, the facts get in the way of the liberal narrative.
Let’s compare two recent six-year periods. The final six years under Democrats (2005-6 to 2010-11) 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 more than $5,000 since the 2013-14 school year; and if legislative leaders’ plans are implemented, in three years average salary will be up almost $10,000 – more than 20 percent – since 2013-14. 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 ten years. Adding in benefits, the average teacher’s total compensation is worth over $67,000.
It’s a reality that has largely escaped notice and it puts teacher pay in an entirely different light.
I am not arguing for more money and resources for public education. Money is important. However, money does not equate to quality public schools. The failures of the last forty years underscore that truth.
Nor am I arguing that Republicans ought to further the many of the same policies that Democrats had laid out. 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 are 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.
The article was first published in the News & Observer.
NOTE: The original version of this article mistakenly identified the timeline for teacher raises since 2013-14. Civitas regrets the error.