Commentary

The truth about education spending

Inhabitants of the “nonpartisan” conservative think tanks are clearly growing desperate that North Carolinians have not fallen for the education funding shell game they helped legislative leaders and the Governor engineer during this past session of the General Assembly. With public opinion titling increasingly against them (both on the issue of education itself and the U.S. Senate race that’s turning, in some respects, into a referendum on the issue), these groups have been cranking out missive after missive in an attempt to prove that down is up.

Fortunately, the truth keeps shining through. Take for example, Ned Barnett’s excellent essay in Sunday’s edition of Raleigh’s News & Observer.  As Barnett patiently explains in the piece, the claims in recent political ads that spending state education spending has increased by “a billion dollars” doesn’t hold water:

The $1 billion increase Wilburn refers to is deeply misleading. Most of that spending includes state contributions to pension and health funds and salary adjustments. It’s not in any real world sense spending for the education of North Carolina’s public school students.

In the real world, spending for education is down. Wilburn could have learned that by going to the financial officer for her own school district. There has been a slight increase in special education funding, but the overall funding for the 5,400-student Yadkin County school district is down.

Denise Bullin, the executive director of finance for Yadkin County schools, has been in the job for two years. In regard to state funding, she says, “We have experienced a reduction in both years.” As for Wilburn’s televised statements, Bullin said, “I don’t agree with that.”

The state’s funding for Yadkin County schools fell from $30.8 million in 2012-13 to $28.3 million in 2013-14. In the same period, its per pupil funding dropped from $5,371 to $5,040.

The piece goes on to explain the statewide picture:

Critics of the Republicans’ education funding are not referring to contributions to the teachers retirement and health funds and salary adjustments. They are referring to how much is spent on what directly affects a student’s school experience. That means how much is available for books, teacher assistants, support personnel such as nurses and counselors, and administrators and transportation.

On this score Republican leaders of the General Assembly have failed not only to maintain funding but to keep up with inflation and the increase in students. For the mathematically challenged, here’s how Philip Price, the chief financial officer for the state Department of Public Instruction, explained it in a post this week on DPI’s website. The post lists public school funding since fiscal year 2008-09 (the last FY before the recession forced freezes and cuts):

“If you back out the funding added for benefit cost increases and salary adjustments, the funding available for classroom activities (textbooks, transportation, teacher assistants, teachers, etc.) has been reduced by over $1 billion.” He adds: “Total funding has remained essentially flat since 2008-09 despite an increase of 43,739 students. As a result, districts have had to accomplish more with less money per student.”

The bottom line: As moms, dads, teachers and students have seen with their own eyes these last few years, North Carolina has continued to under-invest in public education at a time when the economic recovery should have led to significant new investments to help repair the damage inflicted by the Great Recession. The political fallout of these shortsighted decisions may well be significant.

Read Ned’s entire piece by clicking here.

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