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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Tillis: Education Budget Backer or Hacker?

A North Carolina public school teacher says in a TV ad that she tells her students to “start with facts,” but she begins attacking Republican Senate candidate Thom Tillis with an exaggerated claim about Tillis’ education “cuts.”

In the NEA Advocacy Fund ad, the teacher says Tillis, while state House speaker, “cut $500 million from our budget.” That’s not true. We found total state education spending increased by more than $700 million from the 2012-13 school year to the 2014-15 school year, but it hasn’t kept pace with enrollment. If one factors in enrollment, education funding is $368 million less than what a state funding formula says it should be — but not $500 million.

The ad also leaves the false impression that the $500 million “cut” came from the K-12 public school budget. The actual $368 million funding gap is in the total education budget — including community colleges and universities. The two-year gap for K-12 schools is $121 million — not $500 million.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is running a similar ad at the same time that features a mom with kids in grade school talking about the impact of the same cuts.

Voters in North Carolina are being bombarded with confusing and contradictory claims about Tillis’ record on education funding.

According to the NEA Advocacy Fund ad — and numerous attacks from inside and outside Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan’s campaign — Tillis cut $500 million from North Carolina’s education budget.

Tillis, meanwhile, claims on his website that education funding is up $660 million since he was elected House speaker in 2011.

So is Tillis an education budget backer or hacker? Seems like a pretty straightforward question, right? Not necessarily. For starters, it depends on how one defines “education” — just K-12 public school funding, or also community college and university dollars — and how one defines “cuts.”

Let’s start with the version in the NEA Advocacy Fund ad featuring Vivian Connell, who teaches English as a Second Language at Chapel Hill High School. The National Education Association Advocacy Fund is a super PAC funded by the NEA, the nation’s largest teachers’ union.

“I always want my students to start with facts and the fact is, Thom Tillis is terrible for education in North Carolina,” Connell says. “He cut $500 million from our budget. His cuts go so deep, there are no longer enough textbooks to go around. Tillis even voted to increase class sizes — so kids don’t get the attention they need. The fact is: Thom Tillis hurts North Carolina students.”

Did Tillis “cut $500 million” from the education budget? As we often ask here at FactCheck.org: Compared with what?

Total education funding has gone up every year under Tillis’ House leadership in the state House of Representatives. But critics say it hasn’t kept pace with student enrollment growth.

Every year, the state puts out what it calls a “continuation budget” — a budget prepared by the state’s Department of Public Instruction that projects the expense of keeping programs and salaries at current levels. The continuation budget accounts for such factors as student enrollment — including 10,000 new students this year — rising average teacher salaries and the changing cost of gasoline for buses.

In 2013, the continuation budget called for $23.6 billion in total education spending over two years (including K-12 public schools, community college and higher education). The Republican-controlled state Legislature passed a budget that included $23.1 billion. In other words, the enacted budget fell nearly $482 million short of the two-year continuation budget — even as the state spending for education increased.

The state education budget grew in raw dollars — from $11 billion in 2012-2013 to nearly $11.8 billion in 2014-2015 — but just not as fast as deemed necessary to maintain the current level of service. Tillis voted for the 2013 biennial budget, which passed the House 65-53, and defended it on the floor. The budget also passed the Senate and was signed by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

So the NEA ad hinges on whether one considers the difference between those budgets as underfunding or cuts.

But even if one considers the difference between the continuation budget and the enacted budget to be a “cut” — even though in raw dollars the budget grew — the $500 million figure used in the ad is outdated and exaggerated. That’s because in 2014, Tillis supported a budget adjustment that added in more education funding in the second year. So the gap between the two-year continuation budget and the actual funding ended up being $368 million.

The ad also leaves the false impression that the $500 million cut is from the K-12 public education budget.

The ad shows Connell in what is clearly a grade-school classroom and mentions the effect of budget cuts on K-12 public school education, such as cuts to textbook funding and larger classroom sizes. But the $500 billion figure used in the ad includes funding for community colleges and universities.

The two-year combined difference between the continuation budget and the actual budgets enacted under Tillis was $121 million for K-12. That’s far less than the $500 million cited in the ad and by the Hagan campaign.

Another ad currently on the North Carolina airwaves, from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, makes an even more explicit attempt to link the $500 million figure to K-12 public education. It features a young mother talking about her two children — a son in kindergarten and a daughter in fourth grade — and displays text on the screen that says, “Cut Nearly $500 Million from Public Schools,” while showing a photo of a grade-school classroom. The DSCC is spending $9.1 million on ads attacking Tillis’ legislative record, including on education.

Tillis’ claim on his website about increasing education spending focuses solely on state funding for public schools (K-12). The state’s contribution rose from $7.15 billion in 2010-2011 to $7.81 billion for 2013-2014. That’s how the Tillis campaign backs up the claim that education funding is up by $660 million since he was elected House speaker. That’s an increase in spending, but it doesn’t mean schools haven’t felt the effects of slow growth.

Enacted budget increases haven’t kept pace with a rising student population, said Eric Moore, a fiscal analyst in North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction. In addition, he said, increased spending on benefits has cut into classroom spending.

Those are all concerns worthy of political debate, but as Connell says in the NEA ad, it’s best to “start with facts.” And in this case, the facts are being twisted. The NEA says it’s spending “north of seven-figures” to air the ad across 95 percent of the state, ending Sept. 12.

— Robert Farley