GOP Senate challenger Thom Tillis was caught unawares by his opponent, Sen. Kay Hagan’s, attacks against him for not agreeing to spend even more money on schools. Tillis voted for education spending increases at basically the rate of inflation while Hagan appears to be mad he didn’t go on more of a spending binge. But being surprised by this attack doesn’t mean Tillis has to respond by casting himself as the slightly-less-crazy Progressive—which is to say, as the standard Republican—touting his ability to shovel taxpayer money out the door.
Before we get into some figures, let’s look at context. Tillis is the Speaker of the House in North Carolina’s legislature. A lot has been going on in North Carolina lately, and the trends there mimic several nationwide. There’s the effects of the recession, which hit the state hard enough to scare many families. Increasing education spending, even at the rate of inflation (which, by the way, has in the time span been about zero) during the recent recession is more than most states did. In fact, the recession marked the first time in American history that government education spending declined nationwide—albeit slightly.
More context: There’s been an in-state boom in families with children, with families especially seeking the Raleigh and Charlotte areas. And there’s the government debt asteroid hurtling its way towards the state. Lawmakers have enacted some half-measures, which earned enough nationwide establishment scorn to justify a wish they’d done something more serious to actually earn the henpecking. North Carolina has also recently enacted its first school-choice program, a voucher for the poorest of the poor in the state. Nearly twice as many kids tried to get a voucher as managed to secure one this year.
Education Can Be a Reason for Voters to Drop Democrats
As for the Senate race, Hagan had until recently enjoyed a comfortable lead, largely thanks to tarring Tillis with the War on Women brush. But that’s begun to wear off, so she took a look at some numbers showing her greatest need to win among suburbanites and women, and shrewdly pivoted to the kitchen-table issue of education. Education is a sleeper issue in politics that typically resides in the middle of people’s long list of election issues, but since it’s tied both to children and economic prosperity, it’s a huge two-fer when people are nervous (as they obviously are now), especially for women.
There are two smart responses Tillis can make that don’t involve presenting voters with a milder version of a Democrat. These aren’t just for him. Education is becoming an issue that can break off chunks of the Democrat coalition and convert it to Republican voters. Just watch the black civil-rights leaders in Florida, who have slowly begun to make headlines for leaving Democrats because the latter keep backing teachers unions over the state’s massively popular school-choice program, which primarily serves minority and extremely poor families. African-American and Hispanic voters care deeply about their kids and about education, which often substitutes for the strong familial structures their kids, like all kids, desperately need to succeed.
More about school choice and Republicans in a moment. Genuine school choice (not crony capitalism, and not government taking over private schools) is the first winning Republican education policy. The second is taking head-on the assumption that schools need more money.
Most Americans Don’t Know Beans about School Spending
In the past 40 years, North Carolinians have doubled what they spend on K-12 schools, in inflation-adjusted dollars, as Cato’s Andrew Coulson recently showed (he examined the same things for every state, so if you live elsewhere, click through to find the same trend everywhere). Their average SAT scores, however, haven’t budged. That could be something Tillis and other conservative candidates could start educating voters about. For Tillis it may be too late in the game, but other candidates should expect similar attacks and, as we called it in my debate days, “spike” them—always discuss the issue on the campaign trail on offense and defense, rather than waiting until you get attacked to make your defense.
So, what would an education spending campaign “spike” look like? The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice has been doing polls for years now about public attitudes toward a variety of free-market education policies. Their annual poll of voters nationwide always finds that a minority of voters has any idea what public schools actually spend per student. State-focused polls they conduct regularly show the same. Their 2014 survey found that just 14 percent of Americans could estimate the correct range of per-student spending for K-12 government schools. Two-thirds thought per-pupil spending was $8,000 per child or less (the national average, by the way, is about $12,000) or said they had no idea.
When pollsters split the question and informed half the respondents what education spending is, they saw a nine-point drop in those saying it was “too low,” to 47 percent. The percent of parents of school-age children saying spending is “too low” dropped 20 points if they learned accurate spending figures, to 43 percent. The lack of knowledge and absurdly low estimates endemic nationwide were even more pronounced in North Carolina itself when Friedman did a state-focused poll there in 2012:
only 8% of respondents could estimate the correct per-student spending range for the state (this dollar figure reflects “current expenditures” per student). More than one-fourth of all respondents (26%) thought that less than $4,000 is being spent per student in the state’s public schools. Another 45% of voters said they “don’t know” and did not offer a spending number
So a simple spike would be including the state’s per-pupil spending figure when discussing public education. As the Friedman poll itself shows, that simple information itself lowers people’s expectation that taxpayers should spend more. North Carolinians spend about $8,200 per student, more than twice what most voters who would venture a guess estimated.
A more in-depth spike would educate voters further. They might be enraged to know that North Carolina schools employ almost as many non-teaching staff than teachers. If non-teaching staff had increased at the rate of student enrollment since 1992, teachers could have earned $5,649 more each per year. And, hey, where does that bureaucracy come from, anyway? Well, federal regulations impose millions of compliance man-hours on schools, worth billions in salaries for paper-pushers. While a U.S. Senator has little to do with teacher pay schedules (thank God), he or she can definitely do something about the feds filching money from teacher by forcing schools to hire gobs more non-teaching staff.
Now, Trot Out Some Sad Children and Moms
I hate when people play with others’ emotions while obscuring facts. So I’m not going to advocate that any candidate do it just to get ahead. That would be voter manipulation.
But I do think bad government policies hurt people, and their fellow citizens should know about it so they can flog the people who voted for these harmful policies. Tillis has a record he can cheerfully run on in education, a pro-child, pro-parent record of advocating for the poorest and neediest children in his state to get a good education. I’m talking about his direct and personal advocacy for poor, minority kids to access better schools, just like rich people, by giving them a voucher to the school of their parents’ choice. He even went to bat for these families in the courts.
So Tillis’s ads should look a little less like a white guy doing math at the chalkboard—an activity that gives most Americans instinctive shivers—and a little more like this.
Thom Tillis fought for families like these. And, in great part due to his leadership, some 2,000 desperate North Carolina kids are in better schools today. He can certainly tell that story, pointing out also that Hagan opposes parent choice, and he should, especially if he needs to win the mom and suburban voters in the middle (he does). The sort of people who like math are probably already on Tillis’s side. It’s time to go after people who go soft when they see a mother crying—and isn’t that everybody, anyway?
Tillis has been talking up vouchers on the campaign trail, and that’s good, but even more powerful are having other people speaking out for him, especially people who break the meme that Republicans are only for the rich and well-connected. A YouTube search of his name and the word “education,” for example, pulls up a string of short videos from Hagan’s camp, largely interviews with teachers angry at Tillis. Some twenty videos down is Tillis’s math video. For Pete’s sake, at least Tillis’s own campaign should have a monopoly on searches of his name on YouTube. This is elementary branding. It’s impossible to talk to people if they can’t first find you.
School Choice, Jobs Get Voters’ Attention
I talked with a single mom in North Carolina few weeks ago, before the state Supreme Court again allowed the voucher program to continue while a union lawsuit against it works its way through the courts. She talked with me for nearly an hour. Poor parents whose kids get vouchers will do that, by the way. Talk a total stranger’s ear off about their dreams for their child, and how a voucher is their golden ticket. Perhaps a few politicians should try it.
Kena Cooper’s third and last child is 13 years old. Last year, Keenan would sit silently in the car beside her on the way home from school, trying not to cry about the bullies who choked and punched him. Once, when she went to pick up Keenan from public school for a dentist’s appointment, Kena glanced through the window into the cafeteria and saw kids running around and fighting. And it wasn’t just the chaos. It was the education.
When Keenan had difficulties in two classes, “I met with the principal and the guidance counselor as well as the superintendent three times, twice for the superintendent,” Kena said. “I told them, ‘I want him held back. He’s not getting what he needs.’ Their argument was, ‘All his friends are going to the next grade.’ Do you think I care all his friends are going to the next grade? I need him able to do the work.” The school administrators worried Keenan would be taller compared to his classmates if they held him back: “You keep telling me about the physical things, but in his mind, he’s not getting it,” she said, her soft voice rising in pitch. “And you’re telling me about his height? You guys really got degrees?”
When she got Keenan into a private school thanks to his voucher, they found the seventh grader reading and doing math at about a third-grade level. His public school had put his math and reading ability at an eighth-grade level. As for what they teach, Kena is no fool. She knows when instruction is weak: “It’s time for people to stop being lethargic that are in these offices and districts. You’re not teaching cursive writing any more? Why not? You’re not teaching English, it’s just language arts? You’re not teaching verbs and nouns any more, and breaking it down? There’s no need for multiplication tables any more? My dad gave me the speech on that: if you’re at a cash register and your register breaks down, are you going to stand there and stare at them? That’s making kids lazy. They need to keep their mind active on things that are important and necessary. The priorities are all jacked up, oh my goodness.”
Kena is now dead-set on keeping Keenan in his new school, no matter what it takes, after his reaction upon coming home from a welcome-to-school rollerskating and slumber party.
“He called me from the rollerskating rink. When I answered, he said, ‘I’m having the time of my teenage life,’ in his scratchy soprano—he’s hitting puberty,” she said, with a grin in her voice. She waved her daughter over and they listened to Keenan’s exuberance together. He asked his mom to bring his sleeping bag, and after he got some sleep the next day, Kena went and sat on his bed.
“I said, ‘So, what do you think?’ He said, ‘They like me, and I like them too.’ They like me. He was so happy that they liked him.” At his new school, students pass quietly in the hallways, and classes average eight students per teacher.
Kena says she makes less than $20,000 a year at a local radio station. There, “I sit back and listen. I hear Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, it’s more instigating-type media. If they could just look at situations like this, when it’s for the kids, that would be a better investment of time, than raring against the Democrats, the president. It’s entertainment, but what’s really needed is bringing things like this to the light.”
Kena also worries about her oldest child, a 22-year-old young African-American man with no criminal record and no kids, “no strikes against him,” but who can’t find a job. Like many North Carolinians, the job market is very personal to both her and people she loves dearly.
“I am a low-income worker right now, but I work,” she says, pointedly. “I am not on the system at all. My income is not up like everybody else’s, that doesn’t mean that I don’t pay taxes, I do. So when you’re talking about taxpayers’ money, you’re talking about me.” It irks her when people complain that the voucher program uses tax dollars. The point of tax dollars is to benefit taxpayers, and that includes her, on behalf of her child.
“Government has done so many projects that have wasted so much money, but this is our children,” she says, earnestly. “Solar panels or growing crops are one thing. So many test-tube projects the government is saying, ‘Let’s try it, let’s throw money out there.’ But these are real kids, so why are you fighting against the kids?”
There’s a question to ask Kay Hagan, and politicians like her.