Fact Check: A $500 million education cut that isn't quite what it seems

Democrats have been running ads saying that House Speaker Thom Tillis cut education by $500 million. The claim is, at best, incomplete, and the commercials conflate two different categories of education spending.

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Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — One of the questions we often get about our fact-check columns boils down to, "How do you decide what to check?" Candidates and their campaigns, after all, pump out fresh claims daily. 
Although we occasionally will tackle things just because they're interesting, three of our biggest indicators are whether we see a claim repeated in different venues, whether someone is paying big money to put it on the air and if it involves a strangely round number that seems a little too convenient.
A recent example: "When it comes to education, Thom Tillis is gambling with our future. As speaker, he cut nearly $500 million from education," says the narrator in a recent Senate Majority PAC ad. The same claim showed up in an Emily's List ad earlier this summer and in a new Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ad that rolled out just before Labor Day. It also has been used by Democratic campaigns in their critiques of Tillis. 

Tillis, a Republican from Mecklenburg County, is running to unseat U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, a first-term Democrat from Greensboro.

Fact-checkers from both PolitiFact and The Washington Post tackled this claim in June. As both those reports suggest, the $500 million in cuts claim is not as straightforward as it seems. 
THE BACKUP: Multiple groups, including the Hagan campaign itself, have used this number, but one of the first places it hit prominently was a memo from American Bridge, a research and communication organ that supports Democratic campaigns and causes.

"Don’t take my word for it – take a look at Tillis’s abysmal track record in the state House and his extreme rhetoric on the campaign trail. In the state legislature, Tillis has cut education funding by nearly $500 million," American Bridge Director Brad Woodhouse wrote in a memo.

Since then, those making the claim have most frequently cited an Associated Press story that details the 2013 budget and a Charlotte Observer opinion piece, as well as the 2013 budget document itself. 

"The $11.5 billion portion of the state budget set aside for public schools, community colleges and the University of North Carolina system cuts education spending by nearly $260 million this year and another $222 million next year," says that AP story. 

So, $222 million plus $260 million is $482 million, just shy of $500 million. Case closed, right? Not so fast. 

That's a cut from what lawmakers call "the continuation budget." That budget, developed every two years, projects what the state would need to spend in order to keep operations exactly as is. This continuation figure assumes no changes in policy and no savings due to efficiency. 

"If you’re not doing what it takes to maintain the status quo, it’s a cut," Hagan spokeswoman Sadie Weiner said in the PolitiFact piece.

Republicans use a different set of numbers. 

THE PUSH BACK: Rep. Paul "Skip" Stam, provided the GOP push-back to the $500 million claim in a letter to the editor.

"The total education budget in 2010-11 (last budget passed before Thom Tillis assumed the role of House speaker ...) was $10.8 billion. The total education budget for 2014-15 is $11.8 billion. Give this math problem to a fourth-grade student, and he or she will tell you that this is a $1 billion increase in education funding," he wrote.

A check of budgets passed during the past five years backs up Justice's assertion. North Carolina is spending $1 billion more on total education funding this year than in the 2011 fiscal year. In a subsequent story, the Associated Press explained the difference between the Democrat's assertion and the Republican push-back like this: 
"The criticism by Democrats focuses on GOP budget plans that slowed the pace of year-to-year spending increases. That led to a $480 million gap between what budget writers said would be needed to maintain the same level of services and what lawmakers actually approved.
"But in real dollars, education spending has increased every year since Tillis became speaker in 2011. In the last two years, spending at all levels of education is up by about $700 million. It's just less than what was projected would be needed."

So is this case closed? The state hasn't cut $500 million in education funding, but it has gone up $1 billion over four years, $700 million of that in the past two? 

Not really. 

As we've noted in another recent blog post, it's important to take into account the impact of inflation. That $10.8 billion spent in 2010 would be have about $11.8 billion worth of buying power in today's dollars. While that seems like the schools might have been holding their own budget-wise, they have also been adding thousands of students during that time. 

So there is a case to be made that state funding isn't keeping up with the number of students in public schools.

That case could be bolstered by pointing out that the state did not pick up the slack when federal stimulus funds ran out, meaning some of the money that had been supporting public schools ended and was never replaced. 

Just as there are problems with the $500 million cut claim, it's also problematic to make the case the public schools were kept completely whole during the past five years. 

PUBLIC SCHOOLS VERSUS EDUCATION: There is a more subtle but important bit of sleight of hand that all three campaign commercials mentioned in this story commit. The Emily's List ad features a teacher, the recent DSCC ad features a mother talking about her children in public schools, and the Senate Majority PAC features an photo illustration of Tillis in front of a billboard and mentions overcrowded classrooms. 

All of those images implicate K-12 public schools. However, to the extent that advocates making the $500 million claim can back it up, they are talking about total education funding in North Carolina, which includes community colleges and universities. 

By themselves, the reduction from the baseline "continuation budget" for public education would be around $120 million, a smaller and less eye-catching number. 

Yellow light: Slow down and use caution. The statement contains a minor but significant factual error or is lacking important context. You may also see a yellow light when the speaker in question tried to get something right but made an honest mistake that misinterprets a piece of data.
THE CALL: It is tempting to give the $500 million claim a big ol' red light on our fact-checking scale simply because there are more accurate ways to outline problems with education funding. However, this claim isn't spun out of whole cloth, but based on a figure generated by the General Assembly. Still, the $500 million figure is being deployed with some political sleight of hand that makes it hard for viewers to understand. This claim gets a yellow light.


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