How Much Do We Actually Spend On K-12 Education In North Carolina Schools?
The past session of the North Carolina General Assembly was the most divisive in the state’s recent history, and few issues aroused more passion than the issue of funding for K-12 public education. It was one of the main motivations behind the “Moral Monday” protests and the subject of dozens of news stories, editorials and press releases.
Public education advocates and teacher organizations criticized the state’s final budget as a betrayal of North Carolina’s long tradition of supporting public education.
“To the folks now running our state government in Raleigh, education reform is just another code word for cut, slash and burn,” said former Congressman and State Superintendent of Education Bob Etheridge. “We are witnessing a race to the bottom.”
Public Schools First, NC, an education advocacy group, issued a similarly bleak assessment of the assembly’s actions. The budget cuts strike at “the heart of proven strategies that lead to strong schools… A generation of children will suffer under the weight of massive classroom cuts, and we will no doubt see an exodus from the teaching profession.”
But in a recent issue of The Transylvania Times, Republican Sen. Tom Apodoca from neighboring Hendersonville vigorously defended his record in a quarter-page color ad. Far from cutting K-12 budgets, said Apodoca, he and his party had increased education spending more than $360 million dollars over funding in 2012. The chart from the senator’s ad purported to show that since his party’s takeover in 2010 Republicans had increased the K-12 budget $782 million—more than 10 per cent in only three years.
“I support public schools,” said Apodoca, “Always have and always will.”
The Republican Party, other members of the legislature and various conservative organizations have made similar statements.
Given the blizzard of conflicting claims, is it possible to arrive at a relatively firm conclusion about the impact of the recent (and earlier) state budgets on public education?
The answer is yes. While everyone seems to have their facts, not all facts are equal.
We can begin with Senator Thom Goolsby’s Aug. 7 opinion piece in the Chatham Journal. In 2013, he said, “Republicans increased North Carolina K-12 education funding by almost 5 percent or $361, 407, 582.”
There was no $360 million increase in state K-12 funding by the 2012-13 General Assembly. Sen. Goolsby and his fellow Republicans are comparing different versions of the budget, using as their base line the original budgeted figures ($7.5 billion) for 2012-13, not the amount actually spent ($7.8 billion).
To his credit, Governor Pat McCrory has never made such claims. In an August 1 speech he gave to educators in Chapel Hill, he correctly listed the funding increase as $21 million—a little over a quarter per cent rise from the previous year’s budget.
But the more revealing portrait in the state’s downward trend in education spending can best be seen by viewing budgets over the longer term. In 2008, North Carolina spent $7,714,429,569 on K-12 public education. (This was the last budget before the recession began). Adjusted for inflation (8.5 percent) and a growing student population that has been increased by 34,000 students, 2014 education appropriations are more than a half billion dollars less than in 2008. Adjusting for inflation, official figures from the North Carolina Department of Instruction show that annual per student spending has declined from $6,270 to $5,488. North Carolina teachers have seen a 15.7 per cent income decline in real income over the last decade — the greatest in the nation — and North Carolina has plummeted from 27th to 46th in teacher pay. Mississippi is now the only Southeastern state with lower salaries than North Carolina.
To be sure, these have been difficult times and education—along with other state agencies—has been forced to do with less. (Were it not for the $730 million educational support from the Obama administration’s 2009-10 stimulus package, the damage to our schools would have been even worse.)
But the real issue here has to do with legislative priorities. The 2012-2013 North Carolina legislature enacted an income and corporate tax cut that the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center has estimated will eventually cost up to a billion dollars a year. Seventy-five per cent of that tax cut will go to the top 5 percent of taxpayers.
The rationale for these tax cuts: the belief that tax breaks, especially for the well-to-do, will jump-start North Carolina’s economy and reduce unemployment. But Michael Walden, the William Neal Reynolds Professor of Economics and adjunct fellow at the ultra-conservative Locke Foundation, has frankly acknowledged that there are no peer-reviewed economic studies showing that cutting state taxes —particularly for the wealthy — have any appreciable effect on a state’s economic growth. Instead, the effects are likely to be counter-productive.
When states cut taxes, said Walden, they have to cut services. “Businesses benefit from state services. They benefit from an educated work force. They benefit from the transportation system.”
Despite the persistent claims that public education in North Carolina is “failing,” over the last 20 years, our state has been one of the most successful in reducing dropouts, increasing test scores, and developing innovative educational policies. Money is not the only answer; genuine educational reform and higher standards will always be needed in today’s competitive economy. But we have to begin by facing the hard reality that we have reduced — significantly — our support for public schools over the past five years. In so doing, we have jeopardized not only the future of our children but also the future for us all.