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Emily’s List misfires with attack ad on education funding cuts

In a new ad, Emily's List goes after Republican Senate candidate from North Carolina Thom Tillis as part of their WOMEN VOTE! project. (Video: Emily's List)

“Speaker Thom Tillis cut almost $500 million from education, causing crowded classrooms and forcing teachers to pay more out of pocket for school supplies, while Tillis protected tax breaks for yachts and jets.”

–Voiceover of new Emily’s List ad attacking Senate candidate Thom Tillis (R)

This cleverly designed ad from the Democratic-leaning group Emily’s List aims directly at a core audience for Democrats. It features a pregnant woman–highlighting reproductive rights and birth control in oblique fashion—who talks about how her paycheck doesn’t go far “with a baby on the way.” A husband is not mentioned, so a viewer might initially think maybe she’s even a single mother, but then in one scene she appears to be wearing a wedding ring. (Of course, perhaps we are over-interpreting the images.)

The ad attacks North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis for slashing “$500 million” from education, which it further claims forced teachers to pay more out of pocket for school supplies—while he supposedly protected tax breaks for his wealthy pals.

Is that so?

The Facts

We’ve dealt with the jet allegation before, which is taken out of context. A major tax law negotiated under Tillis’s watch in 2013 eliminated a number of loopholes to help finance a tax cut, including a $20,000 cap on deducting property taxes and home mortgage interest that was aimed at the owners of large homes and estates. But lawmakers, under pressure from the state’s boat building industry, did not eliminate a $1,500 cap on the sales tax for boats and planes.

But what about the supposed $500 million cut in education spending?

First of all, that’s a two-year number, as North Carolina operates with a biennial budget. A two-year plan is passed, but the second year is adjusted as circumstances warrant. Right now, the North Carolina House and Senate are wrangling over the 2014-2015 budget, even though the ad acts as if the numbers were set in stone last year.

Moreover, if you look at the actual budget numbers, in raw dollars the money spent on K-12 education went up each year, such as from $7.74 billion in 2012-2013 to $7.81 billion in 2013-2014. The $500 million figure is comparing the figures over two years against a “continuation budget”—what would be needed to maintain the same level of spending based on inflation, population growth and other factors.

In other words, this is another debate over the “baseline.” Both parties play this game—emphasizing the raw numbers when it is to their advantage and the baseline numbers when it is to their opponent’s disadvantage. (Just yesterday, we examined a GOP ad that knocked Obama for cutting Medicare by $700 billion; that was also off a baseline budget.)

Added to this is the usual complexity involving state school budgets. North Carolina funnels money through Local Education Agencies (LEAs), and there is some strange accounting involving something called a LEA Adjustment, which in theory required school districts to cut their share of state funding every year. But last year’s budget eliminated it.

So notice that Emily’s List claimed that Tillis cut the education budget by $500 million, forcing bigger classrooms and teachers to buy more supplies. But only $117 million of these baseline reductions occurred in K-12 education in 2013-2014 (the other cuts were in community colleges and university education). That amounts to a decrease of just 1.5 percent of the K-12 education budget.

Budget documents do show, that while eliminating the LEA adjustment, there was a modest increase in class size, because 5,200 teacher positions were eliminated, and a reduction of $6 million throughout the state for school supplies. (This followed an earlier, bigger cut in school supplies in 2012.) The biggest hit in the budget was for teacher assistants—some $110 million.

While the ad cites a Winston-Salem Journal editorial for its assertion on classroom sizes and school supplies, this editorial actually congratulates the GOP governor and legislature for proposing an increase in teacher wages in this legislative year.

“Since the 2009 General Assembly, under Democratic control, failed to provide a raise, teachers have been under assault, first financially with salaries that didn’t keep up with inflation and then with attacks on their benefits and security,” the editorial said. “Teachers have not only gone without raises, they’ve seen their health insurance premiums rise, their classroom supply funds cut, their class sizes increased while their teaching aides have been fired.”

The House, under Tillis, passed a bill this month with a 5 percent increase in teacher salaries, though the budget still requires negotiations with the Senate, which has rejected the House budget. But in theory the new bill essentially wipes out a lot of the 2014-2015 cuts (at least in terms of dollar value) claimed in the ad.

Election-year politics? Perhaps. But Tillis’ success in boosting teacher pay might also suggest a reason for why Emily’s List is running an ad saying he is against teachers.

“North Carolinians deserve to know the truth about Thom Tillis’ devastating record,” said Marcy Stech, national press secretary of Emily’s List. “Throughout his career, Thom Tillis has taken aim at classrooms and left North Carolina children behind – all while protecting himself and his own special interests.”

The Pinocchio Test

Emily’s List is exaggerating the extent and impact of reductions in state funding for education last year—while ignoring the fact that the education budget is being bolstered this year.

Two Pinocchios

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