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I was having a decent morning yesterday until I saw the latest television ad by Senate Majority PAC, the same outfit that disseminated ridiculous claims about North Carolina’s tax reforms.  This time, the subject was education.  And guess what?  The ridiculousness continues.

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I love watching John, Barbara, Amber, and Big Weather every morning on ABC 11.  I really do. 

But yesterday morning the fabulous foursome was interrupted by an education-themed ad paid for by Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic political action committee that is working to reelect Kay Hagan to the U.S. Senate by attacking her opponent, House Speaker Thom Tillis.

The fact that I usually do not dedicate CommenTerry space to analyzing political ads should reveal something important — don’t mess with me when I am spending quality time with the ABC 11 morning team.

Anyway, you may remember that, in a previous television spot, Senate Majority PAC claimed that the 2013 tax-reform bill raised taxes on 80 percent of North Carolinians, a figure taken from a study by the N.C. Justice Center.  Left-leaning news outlets, including The Washington Post, WRAL-TV, and concluded that the claim was false.  The John Locke Foundation and Carolina Journal came to that conclusion months earlier.

Now, Senate Majority PAC is back with an ad claiming that Tillis cut education spending, eliminated teacher jobs, and froze teacher pay.  Let’s examine their claims, shall we?

Claim 1: $500 million slashed from education budget (Source: News & Observer 8/10/13)

Here is what the News & Observer editorial said,

The truthful answer is that in dollars adjusted for inflation and the state’s growth, North Carolina will spend $534 million less in the next fiscal year than it did in 2008, according to the N.C. Justice Center. It’s true that spending in raw dollars has increased, but it has not kept up with inflation and it has fallen behind the state’s needs as its population has grown.

At least they were smart enough to reference the N&O and not the N.C. Justice Center.

The ad gives the impression that, under Tillis’ watch, education spending declined.  But as mentioned above, the Justice Center is adjusting for inflation, a fact not mentioned in the ad.  The N&O editorial readily admits, "spending in raw dollars has increased."  In fact, N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI) figures show that state education spending increased from $7.15 billion in 2010-11 to over $7.8 billion in 2013-14. 

If the education budget reaches or exceeds $8.1 billion next year, which is a real possibility, then Tillis and his colleagues in the House and Senate would be responsible for adding approximately $1 billion to the education budget during their tenure.

That said, the question of whether the increase kept pace with inflation and student enrollment growth is a legitimate one, but Senate Majority PAC does not mention either variable in their ad.

Claim 2: Eliminated 9,000 teaching positions (Source: Charlotte Observer 8/2/13)

I could not track down the Charlotte Observer article referenced in the ad, but the estimates of lost positions appear to come from the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE).  The NCAE claims that cuts included 5,184 classroom teacher positions, 3,850 teacher assistant positions and 272 instructional support positions.  To get to 9,000, Senate Majority PAC adds teacher assistant positions, which are usually not considered "teaching" positions.

According to N.C. DPI figures, North Carolina’s traditional public schools employed 81,682 full-time, state-funded teachers this year and 82,095 teachers last year.  In other words, the state employed 413 fewer teachers this year. Nevertheless, since the beginning of his tenure, teacher positions have increased.  In 2010-11, state-funded teacher positions totaled 78,963, so Tillis and his colleagues added over 2,700 teachers since he became Speaker of the House. 

There was a more substantial drop in teacher assistant positions between this year and last, a year-to-year change of 1,166 state-funded assistants.  Since 2011, there was a 1,700 teacher assistant decline, but these reductions were a continuation of a trend that began under Democratic administrations.  Indeed, state-funded teacher assistant positions peaked at 22,500 during the 2008-09 school year.

Claim 3. Froze teacher pay; 46th in the United States (Source: Associated Press 3/13/14)

There is some legitimacy to these claims.  Teacher pay was frozen before voters gave Republicans the majority in the General Assembly, but regrettably Tillis and his colleagues continued the trend.  According to the National Education Association, North Carolina’s average teacher salary did rank 46th out of 50 states and D.C.  But that only tells part of the story.

Because of increases in state retirement contribution and health insurance, total compensation increased during Tillis’ tenure, even though the average teacher salary declined.  (The drop may have occurred because of demographic changes to the teacher workforce, but the exact reasons have not been identified.)  N.C. DPI reports that total average teacher compensation was $55,048 in 2010-11, compared to $55,546 in 2013-14.  In fact, average teacher compensation reached an all-time high of $56,159 last year, but dropped due to a decrease in average teacher salary.

Of course, attributing any changes to Tillis alone is ridiculous.  But politics is often ridiculous and Senate Majority PAC ads are evidence of that.  There is comfort in knowing that the ABC 11 morning team will still be there — every weekday morning starting at 5am — long after this race concludes.

Facts and Stats

[See CommenTerry above.]

Acronym of the Week

PAC — political action committee

Quote of the Week

"Senate Majority PAC was founded by experienced, aggressive Democratic strategists with one mission: Protect and expand the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate."

– Senate Majority PAC website

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