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The swarm of attack ads claiming $500 million in North Carolina education cuts

In this ad, paid for by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Senate candidate Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) is criticized for cuts made to the state's education budget. (Video: YouTube/dscclive)
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“I want their school to be a path to a better future. With Tom Tillis cutting funding to our schools, they lose.”

— Shawn Jackson, a mother, in an ad sponsored by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, as ad flashed headline “Tillis budget cut nearly $500 million from public schools.”

The National Education Association released an ad attacking Senate candidate Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) for cuts made to the state's education budget. (Video: YouTube/NEAABS)

 “The Fact is that Thom Tillis is terrible for education in North Carolina. He cut $500 million from our budget.”    

— Vivian Connell, a Chapel Hill teacher, in an ad sponsored by the NEA (National Education Association) Advocacy Fund

The Senate Majority PAC criticizes Senate candidate Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) in this ad for cuts made to the state's education budget. (Video: YouTube/Senate Majority PAC)

“When it comes to education, Thom Tillis is gambling with our future. As speaker, he cut nearly $500 million from education.”

— voiceover in Senate Majority PAC ad

Notice a theme? In the hard-fought North Carolina Senate race, just about every ad from a Democratic outside organization repeats the same talking point —that the GOP candidate, Thom Tillis, as speaker of the North Carolina House, presided over a $500 million cut in education funding. Tillis’s opponent, Sen. Kay Hagan (D), also raised it in a political debate.

In June, we first looked at this issue, when yet another outside group, Emily’s List, ran a similar attack ad. The Emily’s List ad, as well as two of these new ads, pair the $500 million allegation with the bogus claim that Tillis handed out tax cuts for “private jets and yachts.”

Now that the budget season has ended in North Carolina, it’s time for an update.

The Facts

As we have said before, the jet and yacht claim 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.

In other words, Tillis did not give a special tax break to jets and yachts at the expense of school children; it was already in the tax code.

As for the $500 million figure, close observers will note that every single ad attributes this figure to the same source — an editorial in Charlotte Observer that ran in 2013. “The Senate and House budget plan … cuts education spending by almost $500 million in the next two years, including a decrease in net spending for K-12 public schools,” the editorial said.

That’s right, this is a two-year number — and the second year is adjusted as circumstances warrant. Moreover, 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 Washington parlance, this is known as “the baseline.” It’s an important concept, but it is simply an illustration; it not does not reflect actual budget numbers.

On top of that, as the editorial acknowledged, this is a figure for all education spending. 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.

In the most recent legislative session, lawmakers adjusted education spending to give it a $113 million boost, including about $59 million for K-12 education. That’s an increase of about ¾ of one percent from the enacted budget for K-12 education. The latest budget also includes a big boost in teacher salaries and benefits, though Democrats claim it was accomplished through budget gimmicks.

Philip Price, chief financial officer of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, said that this continues a trend since 2009 in which salaries and benefits have been boosted, while funding for classroom services have decreased. The number of students in public schools has increased by 44,000, or nearly 3 percent, but he said the education budget has not quite kept pace.

That mismatch of better pay and benefits for educators and lower spending for classrooms, he said, has meant that since 2009, funding for textbooks has declined 78 percent, instructional supplies fell 51 percent, the number of teacher assistants dropped 23 percent and the number of classroom teachers declined 3.5 percent.

In other words, lawmakers have decided to alter the mix of education funding by increasing teacher pay and benefits while reducing classroom services. So there is some room for complaints about the legislature’s priorities, but that’s an entirely different matter than claiming “$500 million” in cuts.

The Facts

Since just about every Democratic campaign entity is hammering Tillis with the $500-million figure, there must be polling that suggests that it is politically damaging in North Carolina.

But voters should be wary of raw numbers without proper context. This is not a real budget number but one based off a baseline. The ads all feature children, but this is a number for all education funding, not just K-12. Moreover, funding was increased — and teachers got a pay raise — in this summer’s budget, but the ads still cite the old 2013 baseline figure.

Still, it is correct that school spending has not kept pace with school enrollment, leading to cutbacks in classroom services. Thus, we are keeping this rating at Two Pinocchios.

Two Pinocchios

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