Fact checking Lt. Gov. Dan Forest on GOP education spending

By: - August 24, 2015 12:01 pm


Lt. Gov. Dan Forest released a video last week portraying the GOP as defenders of public education who have used the past four years of Republican control of the state to pull education up from from the bottom of the barrel.

Asking anyone who cares about education to share his ‘Fast Facts’ video when they hear people making comments about the Governor and the General Assembly cutting education spending and not caring about teachers, Forest asserts that it’s the GOP who is responsible for catching the state back up on education spending, unlocking frozen teacher salaries and moving forward with proposals to bring spending levels on textbooks back up from next to nothing.

But the lieutenant governor’s video, which is short—less than two minutes in duration — doesn’t really give the full story, according to the NC Budget & Tax Center’s policy analyst Tazra Mitchell, who points out that Dan Forest’s most glaring omission is never mentioning the Great Recession, which drastically hampered the state’s ability to maintain and increase investments in critical public programs.

Forest released the video in response to the “media malpractice” that was taking place in Raleigh. There’s a leftist agenda, said Forest in an interview with Pete Kaliner, that is pushing to make everyone believe that Republicans hate education.

To put Forest’s assertions into the larger context of the past several years, let’s take a closer look. And for the record, I requested from his office source data for the lieutenant governor’s claims, but I haven’t received a response.

1. Forest said that back in 2008-2010, the previous state leadership cut education spending by over $1 billion. Conversely, Governor Pat McCrory and the General Assembly increased spending by $1.2 billion over the last four years, “getting us caught back up.”

While it’s true that education spending went down in 2008-2010 and subsequently went back up over the past few years, it’s not quite that simple.

First, the lieutenant governor made no mention of the Great Recession, which was the worst since the 1930s, nor did he explain the degree to which federal stimulus dollars helped plug in the gaps in state funding for education.

“We’re in an economic recovery,” said Mitchell, who pointed out that the Great Recession, which began in 2007, forced state leadership to stop the bleeding that was occurring thanks to significantly reduced revenues coming into state coffers.

Between 2008-10, state revenues dropped by about $1.8 billion, said Mitchell. Federal stimulus funds helped plug in gaps primarily by saving as many educators’ jobs as possible— but it was still not enough money to keep pace with the growing numbers of schoolchildren coming into North Carolina classrooms, in particular with regard to classroom supplies.

So it’s expected that state spending levels on education should come back up once the recession ended and federal dollars ran out. And with additional state revenues coming in, it’s time to reinvest in programs like education—but there hasn’t been enough of that activity, said Mitchell.

“We truly have not caught up for lost ground,” said Mitchell.

Philip Price, the NC Department of Public Instruction’s chief financial officer, illustrated that point in an interview with N.C. Policy Watch.

Price says while there has been an increase in overall spending on public education in recent years, most of those funds haven’t gone into the classroom.

“The retirement contribution rate doubled over the past several years under the current leadership,” said Price. “State Health Plan contributions went up to, so the vast majority of the increases in spending aren’t being seen by students.”

According to Price’s numbers, since 2008 there are 2,400+ fewer teachers in the classroom, a 22 percent reduction to the number of TAs in elementary schools, a 52 percent reduction in classroom supplies….and the list goes on.

“The number of people in school buildings have declined while our student population has grown,” said Price.

In spite of the increase in overall spending on public education over the past few years, North Carolina’s per pupil funding still isn’t what it was back in 2008, and we were ranked 47th in the nation in per student spending in 2014.

And while it’s true that education spending was cut by about $1 billion between 2008-11, those dollars are adjusted for inflation. Forest’s stated $1.2 billion increase over the past four years is unadjusted, says BTC’s Tazra Mitchell.

“If you adjust that $1.2 billion figure for inflation,” said Mitchell, whose calculations are actually just shy of $1 billion for increased education spending unadjusted, “the increases in education spending are actually closer to $205 million,” said Mitchell.

2. Forest said that teacher pay was “frozen for years” under the previous state leadership, but that our current Republican governor and legislature have raised teacher salaries by an average 11 percent and entry level pay for teachers by $5,000.

video-teacher salaries
The ‘Fast Facts’ video claims the current Republican governor and legislature have substantially raised teacher salaries.

Not quite.

According to statistics from the nonpartisan Fiscal Research staff at the General Assembly, teachers saw an average 8 percent pay raise in 2006-07, an average 5 percent raise in 2007-08, and an average 3 percent raise in 2008-09.

The recession hit in 2007, and beginning with the 2009-10 school year, lawmakers froze salaries for the next three years in an attempt to deal with a scarcity of resources, said BTC’s Mitchell.

The GOP took control of the legislature beginning with the 2011 budget, and that first year they were in office, they gave teachers no raise at all. In 2012, they gave a 1.2 percent across the board raise, and then in 2013 once again they offered teachers no bump in pay at all.

It wasn’t until 2014, an election year, that lawmakers offered teachers an average pay increase of 7 percent, with the bulk of those raises going to beginning teachers and experienced teachers getting next to nothing.

It’s unclear how the lieutenant governor arrived at an average 11 percent pay raise for teachers—he could be adding numbers together, like adding the recent 7 percent raise with an expected 4 percent average raise that could come when lawmakers pass a budget, said DPI’s Price.

As for raising beginning teacher pay, the Governor made a promise in 2013 to raise teacher pay from $30,800 to $35,000 — a $4,200 increase.

So far, the General Assembly has made good on about half of that, raising beginning teacher pay up to $33,000 last year. And today we do have a continuing resolution in place that raises beginning teacher pay to $35,000—but we still don’t have a final budget, so it’s not a completely sealed deal until that happens.

3. Forest said that back in 2010, the state’s previous leadership only spent $2.5 million on textbooks—but the good news is that under GOP leadership, with current proposals, textbook spending will increase to nearly $60 million—over $57 million more.

Back in 2010, state lawmakers indeed reduced the textbook funding allotment from its $100 million pot in 2008 to $2.5 million.

That was supposed to be a nonrecurring cut in order to cope with sharply reduced revenues resulting from the recession.

But it was Republican lawmakers, noted Price, who chose to make the cut ongoing, deeply hurting the classroom.

“Two years ago, GOP lawmakers made [textbook allotments] a recurring cut—and then it was permanently taken out of the budget,” said Price.

Current proposals for the upcoming budget do include adding substantially more funds to the textbook allotment, as Forest suggests.

But as lawmakers are still at odds on a final budget, it’s up in the air as to whether that proposal will materialize.

4. Lastly, Forest said that North Carolina ranks 7th in the nation for state level funding of education? We spend 56% of our state budget on education. And while K-12 education is funded from the state, the feds and the locals, we pick up 57% of the bill from the state level. The average state only picks up 46%. That’s 11% more than the average state.

Yes, it’s true that North Carolina ranks high in terms of how much the state funds public education versus other source, including federal and local dollars—although U.S. Census data says we’re 9th.

We do spend 56 percent of our state budget on education — but that’s K-12 education and higher education combined, an inconsistency if every other number referenced in this video pertains just to K-12 public education.

And it’s worth noting that North Carolina spends more on public school funding at the state level than do most other states because we have a different public school spending structure here.

“The Machinery Act was passed in the 1930s to deal with the fact that school districts were going bankrupt,” explained DPI’s Price. “The state stepped in and took over funding public schools, saving them from bankruptcy. Ever since then, we as a state have had a commitment to funding public education at the state level.”

It’s a commitment that allows the state to more equitably distribute funds for public schools as well, filling in gaps where local property taxes would otherwise generate insufficient funds to guarantee a sound basic education for every child.

But even though, as a percentage, the state provides more money to public schools than other states, it’s just a percentage—not total dollars, said Price.

“Look at how much we spend here in North Carolina on a per student basis,” said Price.

According to NEA Rankings and Estimates for 2013-14, we’re 47th in the nation on that calculation.

Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or [email protected]

Twitter: @LindsayWagnerNC

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Lindsay Wagner

Lindsay Wagner, former Education Reporter for N.C. Policy Watch. Wagner now works as a Senior Writer and Researcher at the NC Public School Forum. She has also worked for the American Federation of Teachers in Washington, D.C., as a writer and researcher focusing on higher education issues and for the National Education Association, the U.S. Department of State's Fulbright program and the Brookings Institution and an Education Specialist at the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. [email protected]