Says Thom Tillis "has cut $500 million from public education."

Kay Hagan on Tuesday, October 7th, 2014 in a debate

In debate, Kay Hagan says Thom Tillis cut education by $500 million

North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan debated her Republican challenger, Thom Tillis, on Oct. 7, 2014.

Education spending was a point of contention in the North Carolina Senate debate on October 7, when Sen. Kay Hagan repeated a popular Democratic talking point that Thom Tillis and state House Republicans are responsible for cuts to school funding.

Sen. Hagan said Tillis "has cut $500 million from public education and, you know what that means folks? That means fewer teachers in the classroom. That means larger classroom sizes and that means outdated textbooks if there’s any textbooks at all."  

Back in June we checked the same claim from a television ad sponsored by Women Vote, an arm of EMILY's List, a political action committee that supports Democratic women who are in favor of abortion rights.

Where did the cuts come from?

When we looked at North Carolina's education budget year to year, it has increased every year since Tillis became speaker in 2011. According to a document prepared by the General Assembly, the state education budget was $10.8 billion in the 2010-11 fiscal year and $11.5 billion for 2014-15. (These numbers are adjusted for inflation and include both K-12 and higher education spending.)

Additionally, state expenditure per pupil for K-12 has increased since 2011 -- from $5,156 in 2011 to $5,395 in 2013.

Education spending in North Carolina comes from a combination of federal, state and local dollars. State funding accounts for more than 62 percent of expenditures.

So did Sen. Hagan and Women Vote pull that $500 million cut out of thin air? No, but it's complicated.

Each year, the North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management creates a continuation budget, which is a tool that outlines how much should be spent to maintain the current service level, without cutting or adding services. The projection might be larger or smaller than previous years because it takes into account factors such as inflation, population growth and operating new facilities. Lawmakers are not obliged to match the continuation budget.

For the 2013-15 budget, the state budget office proposed a continuation budget of about $23.6 billion for those two years to maintain the status quo across K-12 and higher education. The budget that state lawmakers passed came up to about $23.1 billion. In total, lawmakers allocated $481 million less than the the continuation budget suggested. (EMILY's List pointed us to this when we asked about the ad back in June.)

That shortfall ended up dividing the political parties in North Carolina: Last year, Tillis took to the floor to push lawmakers to pass the budget, while Democrats bashed the bill primarily because they believed the education allocations weren't adequate. The bill passed 65-53 in the House and 32-17 in the Senate, with no Democratic votes in favor.

It’s important to note that the Legislature’s choosing to fund at levels lower than the continuation budget is not a literal budget cut. In raw dollars, the state is spending more money than in previous years.

However, Tillis’ critics say it has the same effect as a cut.

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

Some other critics of Tillis’ education record have noted that state funding for K-12 education in North Carolina is about $500 million less than pre-recession levels. In the 2013-14 school year, public school spending was about $7.9 billion. In 2008-2009, it was $8.4, when adjusted for inflation.

The budget affecting the 2014-15 school year eliminated 5,200 teachers, 3,800 teacher assistants and about $115 million for textbooks and instructional supplies, among other services, Philip Price, CFO for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, told us in June. It also increases student-teacher ratios.

The budget added a small number of new programs, but the vast majority of state education spending growth over the years comes down to rising healthcare and retirement costs.

"That doesn’t help the students," Price said. "It doesn’t mean you get more teachers. It doesn’t change what is available to that classroom."

Reductions in federal and local education spending -- as well as funding shifts due to rising charter school popularity -- could also be a major reason why schools feel as if their funds have shrunk, despite a steadily increasing state budget, said Terry Stoops, director of research and education policy at the John Locke Foundation, a North Carolina think tank that promotes limited government. He added that between 2010 and 2013, federal funding to North Carolina schools dropped by $337.6 million.

But when the federal government stopped giving North Carolina schools stimulus funding, the state did not pick up the slack, Price said.

The state's shrinking spending on classroom services is part of a trend that has been going on since the recession -- back to when Democrats controlled the General Assembly -- and can't be solely blamed on one speaker of the house, he added.

Our ruling

Sen. Hagan’s statement attacking Tillis said he "has cut $500 million from public education."

Literally, the statement is wrong. As North Carolina's Speaker of the House, Tillis helped pass a budget in 2013 that increased actual spending on education in comparison to previous years.

But the budget spent almost $500 million less than what was requested to maintain the status quo, accounting for inflation and increased costs of various services. Additionally, the actual budget increase had a lot to do with rising costs of employee benefits, and not a lot to do with money that ends up in the classroom.

We rate this claim Half True.