The U.S. Senate race in North Carolina is heating up, and education has taken center stage. Sen. Kay Hagan has accused her Republican challenger, state Speaker of the House Thom Tillis, of not caring about children. Tillis has countered, saying he has raised teachers’ pay and increased education spending in the state. Polls now show the two in a virtual tie, with Hagan slightly ahead.
The Democratic ads highlighting education have been brutal and filled with misinformation. A National Education Association (NEA) advocacy ad shows an English teacher from Chapel Hill accusing Tillis of cutting millions from the budget: “I always want my students to start with facts and the fact is, Thom Tillis is terrible for education in North Carolina,” the teacher says in the ad. “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.”
Interesting that the teacher says she wants her students to know the facts, when what she said is not a fact at all. There have been no “cuts” to education in North Carolina. According to FactCheck.org, “Total education funding has gone up every year under Tillis’ House leadership in the state House of Representatives,” even though critics say the increase 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.
Of course, some might still consider this a “cut.” But even if this is the case, the $500 million figure is “outdated and exaggerated.” “That’s because in 2014, Tillis supported a budget adjustment that added in more education funding in the second year,” FactCheck.org writes. “So the gap between the two-year continuation budget and the actual funding ended up being $368 million.”
Plastering Sad Children Everywhere
The NEA ad that accuses Tillis of hurting children—as well as similar ads running across the state (all featuring women)—also makes it seem like these “cuts” are from the K-12 public education budget. Faces of little children appear in the background of all these ads, stirring up emotions with mischaracterizations and inflammatory language.
As FactCheck.org says, “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.”
According to Tillis, “Education spending in North Carolina has increased by $660 million” since Tillis was elected Speaker in 2011. That means education funding has increased by 9.2 percent: $7.15 billion in 2010–11 and $7.81 billion in 2013–14. Tillis also increased funding for textbooks in those respective years: $2.5 million and $23.1 million.
Some still say that these increases don’t keep pace with inflation or the growth in the number of students. Rep.Tim Moffitt disputes this claim: “Economists forecast inflation at 1.5% for the coming year and the Department shows stable growth in student enrollment — averaging about a half percent over the last five years. That’s a total of 2%, which is about where we are in terms of the increase in K-12 appropriations over what it was last year. So when you look at it from that perspective, by fully keeping pace with growth, K-12 essentially breaks even next school year.”
Recalls the ’90s School Lunch Lies
The demonization of Republicans on the issue of education in North Carolina is reminiscent of the demagogy over the school lunch program back in the 1990s when the Republicans in the Congress, led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, proposed to give each state a lump sum of money for school lunches. There were no cuts, but that’s how the Democrats portrayed the Republican proposal.
If you believed Democrats at the time, you would have thought evil Republicans wanted to starve children. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, shamelessly said, “The Republicans know that children are not old enough to vote, so they have targeted the school lunch program.”
But the Republicans didn’t “target the school lunch program,” and the Gingrich that stole Christmas was a lie. The Republican proposal increased the amount of money allocated for school lunches under the welfare bill by 4.5 percent per year for five years. The block grant gave power back to the states to spend the money. But it was a complex proposal and one not easily explained to voters.
Once again, we see the same kind of rabble rousing being displayed in North Carolina. Of course, manipulations and misrepresentations have always been part of the political game, but when the same lie is repeated, one has to wonder why the American people keeping falling for it.
The Demagoguery Works on Women
In North Carolina, the demagogy seems to have been working, as Hagan has remained ahead in the polls (if barely). Education is the second most important issue to North Carolinians, and when voters (especially women) hear concerned female teachers telling them that Tillis has snatched textbooks away from children, they are emotionally affected.
The people who seem to be most influenced by the ads are suburban female voters. These are women who could vote for Tillis (along with their husbands), but can be swayed by emotional issues, such as mean Republicans not caring about kids’ education. Hagan has been luring these women away from Tillis with this messaging and sees them as a key part of her coalition to win in November.
She is also using this issue to motivate her base. As cited in Roll Call, Morgan Jackson, a North Carolina Democratic operative, says, “Education motivates Hagan’s base, and that’s an urban corridor base. Not only is it an issue that is a good issue for all of North Carolina, it is one that is off the charts on the people that she needs to motivate.”
In North Carolina, there is a sizable gender gap between Hagan and Tillis, something spurred on in various ways through Hagan’s use of the war on women and appealing to female voters on issues such as education.
Much has been said about 58 percent of voters polled in the state who think the war on women is just a political slogan (compared to only 22 percent nationally), but 85 percent of voters who believe there is a real war on women support Hagan, and Hagan has won more support from women than Tillis has. A recent Fox News poll taken in September shows 46 percent of women supporting Hagan, compared to 30 percent backing Tillis.
The GOP has been trying to push back on the Democratic tactics, but they’re on the defensive. Carter Wrenn, a GOP strategist quoted in Roll Call, says, “They really haven’t done a very good job of carrying their side of that debate.” They mostly ignored the issue of education “until ended up in a political campaign ad and now they’re answering it.”
“You can’t ignore it,” Wrenn said. “It matters to too many people.”
The GOP isn’t ignoring it now, and they’ve had their own ads on the airwaves countering the demagogy that has been flooding North Carolina for months. It seems to be working, as the gap between Tillis and Hagan is closing. The race is essentially a tie now, with Real Clear Politics average showing Hagan up only by 1.5 points—43.1 to Tillis’ 43.6.