Politics & Government

Education rising in Senate race

In many ways it’s an unlikely issue to headline a U.S. Senate race.

But education, generally a state and local matter, has come to dominate the airwaves in the race between Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan and Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis.

Hagan and her allies have spent millions to argue that Tillis and GOP lawmakers have slashed education in North Carolina.

Tillis and his allies counter by touting the 7 percent average pay raise he helped pass this year for teachers.

In recent weeks, no other issue has gotten as much attention as both candidates jockey for advantage in a race most polls show as virtually tied. The contest is widely seen as one of a handful that could tip control of the Senate.

“It is unusual that this very localized issue has garnered this kind of attention at the national level in this race,” said Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political science professor.

Education is an issue that has appeal to both sides.

Tillis can boast of a leading role in winning one of the largest teacher raises in state history.

Hagan, a former lawmaker who left the state Senate in 2009, can keep attention on the Republican-controlled General Assembly, which critics say cut overall education spending even while raising teacher salaries.

“They’re both right,” said Eric Houck, an associate professor of Educational Leadership and Policy at UNC Chapel Hill. “You can’t deny that there’s been a teacher salary increase … focused on early-career teachers. There have been other overall cuts to education. Education is more than just teacher salaries.”

Education is important to independent voters, according to a new poll by the conservative Civitas Institute. The survey in late August asked independents to name an issue where they think the state is “getting it wrong.”

Thirty-five percent said education; 18 percent said teacher pay. Nothing else was cited by more than 13 percent.

Costs, spending rise

According to the state Department of Public Instruction, next year’s appropriations for public schools are at $8.68 billion, more than a third of the state’s overall spending and nearly $300 million more than the previous year.

Average per-pupil spending rose from $5,556 to $5,712.

Both overall and per-pupil spending are higher than at any time since 2008-09. But education officials say those figures mask cuts caused by higher costs for employee salaries and benefits.

After 2008-09 – the last prerecession budget year – public school spending began declining.

It didn’t begin rising until 2011-12, when Republicans controlled the legislature. This is the first year overall spending will have exceeded that of 2008-09.

But over that same period, the number of students rose by nearly 44,000. And the cumulative increase in employee salaries and benefits has rocketed to $1.2 billion.

“If you back out the funding added for benefit cost increases and salary adjustments, the funding available for classroom activities – textbooks, transportation, teacher assistants, teachers, etc. – has been reduced by over $1 billion,” said Philip Price, the department’s chief financial officer.

Money for textbooks, for example, has dropped from $67.15 per student in 2008-09 to $14.86 per student.

Ads on both sides

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Senate Majority Fund, a group associated with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, have run ads criticizing what they call cuts orchestrated by Tillis and his GOP allies.

On Wednesday, the day of the first Senate debate, Hagan began running a series of four ads featuring teachers, a student and a parent, each blaming Tillis for education cuts.

Tillis countered earlier criticism with an ad defending his budget even while trying to tie Hagan to President Barack Obama. Carolina Rising, a conservative nonprofit, spent $1.5 million on an ad praising Tillis and Gov. Pat McCrory for raising teacher salaries.

“Republicans don’t necessarily do a good job of tooting their own horn,” said Dallas Woodhouse, the group’s president. “Education is an important issue and it got very, very muddled. … We thought it was important to let people know actually what happened.”

Education also took center stage in Wednesday’s debate.

Tillis took aim not just at Hagan but at the federal Department of Education. During the primary, he had suggested it could be eliminated, at least “in its current form.”

In the debate, he criticized “Washington bureaucrats” who are “telling teachers how to teach in schools.”

“They’re forcing tests,” he said. “They’re forcing reports. They’re taking freedom out of the classroom. They’re preventing teachers from being able to innovate.”

Hagan returned to the subject of education several times in the debate, often while criticizing Republican tax cuts that she said disproportionately benefit the rich.

“He has given tax cuts to the wealthy, and he is paying for it by gutting education,” she said.

Republican strategist Marc Rotterman said both candidates share a goal.

“Both sides are trying to appeal to independent women and trying to define their (opponent) as not doing enough on education,” he said. “On education, they’ve fought to a standstill.”