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Did Speaker Tillis Really Cut $500 Million From Education?

Senate Majority PAC
Senate Majority PAC/YouTube

Education is a central theme in the race between Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan and Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis. Both U.S. Senate candidates have highlighted the issue as they try to gain an advantage in what has been a tight contest. 

Hagan has argued that Tillis is not prioritizing public schools and education. She claims that he cut about $500 million in education spending.

“His priorities even speak louder than his words,” Hagan said during her first debate with Tillis. “...The fact that he gave tax cuts to the millionaires. He cut education by $500 million.”

That claim has been repeated in multiple campaign ads, including this one from the Senate Majority PAC.

But is it true? Did Tillis really slash almost half a billion dollars in education funding?

“I don’t think it is true,” said Terry Stoops, director of education studies at the conservative John Locke Foundation.

“It takes some gymnastics in order to even justify a claim like that, let alone try to prove that it is correct.”

The claim is complicated. Every two years, the state projects how much money it will cost to run its public schools depending on changes in enrollment. In the most recent budget, Tillis and other lawmakers allocated $500 million less than what was estimated would be needed.

For that reason, Stoops says it’s not fair to call it a cut.

“Had the ad been something along the lines of 'Speaker Tillis underfunded education by $500 million,' they might have a leg to stand on. There might be a legitimate debate as to whether that’s the case or not,” Stoops said.

Hagan and her allies don’t see it like that. 

“I think if you’re not doing what’s needed to keep up with the growing student population, then it’s a cut,” said Sadie Weiner, a spokeswoman for Hagan.

But Republicans paint a different picture. Meghan Burris, a spokeswoman for Tillis, says education spending has only gone up during his tenure.

“The reality is that every year Thom has been speaker, he’s actually increased education funding by, in total, 9.2 percent, or $660 million,” Burris said.

That’s true. So then, are we done? Hagan is wrong; Tillis is right? Not quite.

“While there has been an increase in money put into the public schools, there’s also been a corresponding decrease in funding for the classroom specific activities,” says Phillip Price, chief financial officer for the Department of Public Instruction.

Price says if you back out funds for benefits and salary adjustments, you’ll see that the funding for classroom activities has shrunk in the last four years; everything from textbooks to teacher assistants.

“Teachers have more students that they have to work with. They have less resources to be able to support the needs of their students,” Price said.

Student enrollment has been going up while the number of school personnel is going down. North Carolina has lost more than 10,000 teachers and teacher assistants in the last four years. The number of students rose by nearly 44,000 over that same period.

Another part of the funding picture is the loss of federal stimulus dollars, which the state has not fully replaced.

Tillis supporters say it’s unfair to cast him off as someone who’s hurt public schools, especially when just this year he helped give many teachers a sizeable pay raise.

Even so, education expert Terry Stoops says the $500 million figure could be damaging.

“We might see the election pivot on this idea that Thom Tillis cut - supposedly cut - funding from public education. That might be the figure that decides this campaign,” Stoops said.

Recent polls show that education is a critical topic for voters. When the conservative Civitas Institute asked independent voters what issue the state is getting wrong, education was number one. Next on the list: teacher pay. 

Reema Khrais joined WUNC in 2013 to cover education in pre-kindergarten through high school. Previously, she won the prestigious Joan B. Kroc Fellowship. For the fellowship, she spent a year at NPR where she reported nationally, produced on Weekends on All Things Considered and edited on the digital desk. She also spent some time at New York Public Radio as an education reporter, covering the overhaul of vocational schools, the contentious closures of city schools and age-old high school rivalries.
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