Weekly Briefing

Attempting to have it both ways

The right’s misleading spin on public education

Sometimes you have to hand it to conservative North Carolina political leaders and their adjunct staffs in the right-wing propaganda shops for their truly shameless audacity. Who else could attempt to spin a shortsighted, ideologically-driven, widely unpopular and mean-spirited policy decision to intentionally fire thousands of educators at a time in which K-12 schools were already struggling mightily (a move, mind you, that was completely unnecessary absent the conservative decision to slash taxes in the midst of a budget crisis) as having “taken positive steps for education over the past year”?

Amazing as such a claim is those are the exact words of state House Speaker Thom Tillis this past weekend in a Charlotte Observer editorial.

Here is the relevant paragraph:

“The legislature has taken positive steps for education over the past year. Despite inheriting a $3 billion structural deficit from the governor’s last budget, we passed a balanced budget that actually resulted in an increase in the number of state-funded teaching positions. And we did it without raising taxes.”

But, of course, as is frequently the case, these days, Tillis’ spin was not really his own; it was just a repackaged version of talking points developed a few days earlier by Tillis’ pals at the J.W. Pope-Civitas Institute.

Here is the relevant excerpt from the Pope-Civitas article:

“Preliminary public school personnel data from the Department of Public Instruction shows that the number of state-supported public education personnel increased by 4,720 over the previous year.

The data stands in stark contrast to Gov. Beverly Perdue’s claims Republican state budget cuts have resulted in larger class sizes, and the loss of thousands of teacher and teacher assistant positions.”

Got that? The conservatives didn’t harm the public schools! Look: they increased the number of state-funded teachers!

Wow! Who knew? How in the heck did they pull off such a feat? And why are critics criticizing such heroic efforts?

Well, here’s how and why: The supposed “feat” is illusory – a creative bit of rhetorical hocus-pocus designed to confuse listeners who are not paying close attention.

Beyond the talking points

Look a little closer at the claim: “The conservative budget increased the number of state-funded teachers.”

While technically true – the conservative budget did shift some dollars from other underfunded state programs to this line item – it’s also true that the modest gains in state-funded teachers were more than offset by losses in federally-funded and locally-funded teachers – two cuts that conservatives led the charge to bring about. Indeed, many of the “local” cuts were really the result of “discretionary” cuts mandated by the legislature!

The end result is that, according to the most recent data,North Carolinahas almost 5,000 fewer K-12 personnel (teachers, principals, teacher assistants, etc…) this year than last. Had conservatives merely left taxes as they were – or even cut them less than they did – all of these cuts could have certainly been avoided.

By any rational measure, as a result of the conservative budget, things in North Carolina’s already badly-underfunded K-12 system are stretched thinner than they were last year. If you don’t think so, visit any public school system in the state – especially in one of our poorer, more rural areas and ask.

But what about the Governor?

Conservatives have claimed that Governor Perdue – who presided over previous education cuts during the first two years of her administration – is playing politics by criticizing them and proposing to restore some sales tax revenue that was lost of a result of the 2011 conservative tax cuts.

Here, however, is why this doesn’t hold water:

When Governor Perdue came into office in 2009, the national economy (and. thus, state revenues) were both in a 200 m.p.h. freefall – the worst since the Great Depression. Nonetheless, despite this dire and essentially unprecedented situation, Perdue and the Democratic General Assembly acted to: 1) renew temporary taxes that had been scheduled to expire and 2) draw down as much federal aid as possible.

The result was that damage was minimized. Rather than the truly draconian measures taken in other states like shortening the school year and closing vast numbers of schools,North Carolinamuddled along more or less intact. Cuts were painful – especially the first year – but not nearly as disastrous as they would have been if Perdue had heeded the conservative, HerbertHoover-like advice to do nothing.

Of course, many thoughtful people would have liked to have seen Perdue and the Democratically-controlled General Assembly do even more, but at least both did act. They took strong, intentional action to minimize harm.

Now, flash forward to 2011. With the economy finally beginning a gradual turnaround, revenues were still severely depressed but not falling like 2009. It was an obvious time to recover lost ground. Nonetheless, because of conservative obstructionism inWashington, any hope for additional federal stimulus assistance had been dashed. Thus, even with an end to the economic freefall, the need for state income was desperate if leaders were going to replace the expiring federal stimulus dollars.

So what did conservative legislative leaders do when confronted with this crisis? The answer, of course, is that they cut taxes and took state spending back to the levels of the early 1970’s.  At a point in time in which their services were more important than ever, thousands of education professionals (not to mention thousands of additional important public employees working in dozens of other critical areas) were let go – all so State residents could receive a tax cut that most of them have not noticed and thought was unnecessary (with the notable exception of the many wealthy individuals and corporations – whose accountants knew quite well what they were receiving).

Duplicity

So who’s “playing politics” in all of this? Obviously, at some level that’s what all politicians do. But here’s the top reason the various claims of conservatives ring especially hollow and duplicitous:

To the Tea Party base, Speaker Tillis and his allies brag about slashing government and their plans to privatize public education – i.e. what they’ve actually done or commenced.

In polite company, however, the Republicans’ tune changes. That’s when, realizing as they do that most voters don’t go along with their extreme, far right ideology, the spin and word parsing about increasing the number of “state funded” teachers begins. Sadly, this is a familiar pattern to anyone who’s watched the debate onJones Street over the last year.

In the end, it’s hard to know what’s worse:  the damage conservatives are inflicting on the state or their two-faced refusal to stand up and publicly admit what they’re really doing.

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