Opinion: Carolina Beat

CJ Editorial: The State Raised School Spending

The following editorial was published in the October 2014 print edition of Carolina Journal:

As we go to press, polls are showing incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan with a slender lead over her Republican challenger, House Speaker Thom Tillis. And Hagan received a minor bump after Labor Day, no doubt as the result of a host of ads from Hagan and allied groups on education funding. The charge that has resonated with voters is the claim that the North Carolina legislature cut education spending $500 million under Tillis’ leadership.

Nonpartisan fact checkers have judged the $500 million claim to be false or misleading. But even they haven’t explained fully just how far off the mark Hagan’s allegation is, because they tend to focus only on the first three years of education budgets rather than the full trend under Tillis, which includes the 2014-15 fiscal year we’ve now entered.

To evaluate the claim, we need four pieces of information: 1) total state spending on K-12 public schools in 2010-11, the last year in which the General Assembly was in Democratic hands; 2) total state spending on K-12 public schools in 2014-15; 3) a measure of student enrollment; and 4) a measure of inflation.

While we know how much the state of North Carolina spent on public schools in 2010-11, we can’t know that for the current school year until sometime in 2015. What we do know is what the state plans to spend this year. To compare apples-to-apples, then, we have to compare the enacted budget for 2014-15 to the enacted budget for 2010-11.

Similarly, while we know how many students attended public schools in past years, we have only a projected enrollment figure for the current school year. On average, actual enrollment has been lower than projected since the beginning of the Great Recession. Consistency requires that we use projected enrollment.

Finally, there is more than one measure of inflation. To track institutional trends, many economists prefer the gross domestic product deflator, which captures a broad set of producer as well as consumer prices, over the household-oriented Consumer Price Index.

John Locke Foundation researchers pulled all these statistics together and found:

* Total state spending on K-12 education is projected at $8.6 billion for 2014-15, up from $7.53 billion in 2010-11. That’s an increase over four years of more than $1 billion, or 14 percent. It followed a two-year drop in state school spending of nearly $800 million, or 9 percent, under the previous Democratic legislature.

* Both student enrollment and prices went up over the past four years, too. In inflation-adjusted, per-pupil terms, state spending on North Carolina public schools rose 3 percent over the past four years, following an 11 percent drop during the last two years of Democratic rule in Raleigh.

Under Tillis, education spending went up, even after adjusting for inflation and student enrollment. To say that the Republican legislature actually reduced state appropriations to North Carolina’s public schools is to misstate the facts.