Opinion: Daily Journal

Edwards’ Mysterious Billion

RALEIGH – It all started as I was driving home from work Tuesday and heard a radio report quoting Sen. John Edwards to the effect that North Carolina public schools would be receiving more than $1 billion in federal funding next year.

Since I knew that federal funding for our public schools was about half that in the current school year, my initial reaction was that either 1) our junior senator has nearly doubled our federal education funding in a single year, a truly impressive feat of legislative heavy-lifting worthy of awe, or 2) this particularly news broadcast had misstated the senator’s press release.

Later, I found out there was a third option. Edwards’ office seems to have massively overstated the federal funding increase for N.C. public schools, claiming that it would approach $1.1 billion in 2002-03 when it will really be about $679 million. The senator also claimed a healthy annual increase of 17 percent when the real rate appears to be less than half that, at 7.4 percent.

I starting poking around after I noticed how much press coverage the senator had received for his report, entitled Resources and Reform for North Carolina: How the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 Will Impact Our State’s Schools (read it online here.)

First of all, the billion-dollar claim wasn’t a media misunderstanding. “I am pleased that the No Child Left Behind Act contains a substantial down payment on the cost of school reform,” Edwards states in the report. “North Carolina’s schools will receive over $1 billion in federal school aid next year – $100 million more than they received last year.”

The act in question, as you may remember, was President George W. Bush’s signature education program. Early on, the president tossed out the concept of offering federal scholarshipsfor private education to low-income students trapped in consistently failing public schools. Faced with implacable opposition from the Democratic Senate (including from Edwards), Bush settled for the idea of offering aid for private tutoring to those students. In other respects, the president did get sort of what he asked for, such as requiring states to conduct serious testing programs in order to receive federal Title I funds.

Edwards’ report provided reporters and others with several sets of data, including Title 1 (education for the disadvantaged) funding broken out by congressional district and overall public school funding broken out by school district. Naturally, these localized data maximized the senator’s press coverage in television and radio newscasts and in print stories in The Winston-Salem Journal, The Star-News of Wilmington, the Times-News of Burlington, The Hickory Daily Record, The Laurinburg Exchange, and many other papers.

But try I as might, I could not get Edwards’ numbers to add up. The report does not contain a detailed description of how federal school dollars in North Carolina total more than $1 billion. When asked to provide such documentation, the senator’s press office emailed a spreadsheet providing expected 2002-03 funding for North Carolina. It does, indeed, add up to nearly $1.1 billion. Unfortunately for Edwards, it contains many items that have absolutely nothing to do with our public schools. These include Pell Grants for college ($255 million by itself), vocational rehabilitation for the working-age disabled, services for the blind, community college aid, student loan programs, and grants for infants and preschoolers.

Not only did Edwards’ office apparently inflate the federal funding number for N.C. public schools – by 62 percent, or about $418 million – but the numbers in the report don’t jibe with the numbers in the supporting documentation his office sent me. For example, Edwards says that North Carolina’s Title 1 money for disadvantaged students will increase $57 million in 2002-03 to $250 million. That’s a significant 34 percent hike. But according to the Congressional Research Service document the senator’s staff supplied me as verification, the increase is only $21 million, to $271 million, representing an 8.5 percent rise.

Lastly, Edwards’ spin on education funding and the “No Child Left Behind Act” is fundamentally flawed. North Carolina has seen a large rise in federal funding for our public schools, from $510 million in 2000-01 to $679 million projected for 2002-03. But the vast majority of this increase occurred last year, when federal funding of our schools reached $631 million. In the 2001 budget cycle, the Bush administration put a huge amount of the expected budget surplus into education in an attempt to counterbalance its proposed tax cuts. In North Carolina, the largesse amounted to a 24 percent increase – far more than the 7.4 percent increase projected for 2002-03 and actually relating to the “Leave No Child Behind Act” of which Sen. Edwards was so proud.

In other words, it was in 2001 that North Carolina schools received a major boost in its bottom line from Bush and the Congress. But not from Sen. Edwards, who voted against last year’s budget compromise and the $121 million increase in federal education funding it provided North Carolina.