To look at GOP graphs explaining public education funding, you’d think that the legislature didn’t start paying for public schools until 2008. Every one begins with a downward trend for two years and then a dramatic upswing when Republicans took control. Like Oz the All Powerful, they don’t want you to pull back the curtain and see what’s really going on.
In the decade before the Republicans took over state government, Democrats funded public education substantially better on virtually every metric. The only time they didn’t give educators a raise was when the economy tanked and revenue dried up during Bush’s Great Recession. Democrats froze pay in 2009-10 and 2010-11. Republicans did the same in 2011-12.
The difference, though, is that Democrats had a goal to keep up with the national average, even if they fell short. In contrast, Republicans came into office criticizing teachers and calling our schools broken, implying that teachers were somehow responsible. The schools weren’t broken, even if they were struggling like the rest of the country in the midst of the Great Recession.
So what did Republicans do? They started “reforming,” their euphemism for cutting. They eliminated teacher assistants from classrooms. They reduced funding for basic school supplies like textbooks. They shifted funding from traditional schools to charters and private schools without requiring the same level of accountability. Per pupil funding and teacher pay plummeted compared to other states in the region and country.
Republicans claimed they’ve reformed our schools without any significant improvement in outcomes. Schools in more prosperous areas continue to perform very well while those in poorer areas still struggle. Republicans reforms are more about ideology than outcomes. They want schools to do more with less, since they believe all government programs are wasteful. They want their conservative evangelical base to have the option to send their children to religious schools and are willing to subsidize them with government funds. And they want to keep cutting taxes for the wealthy instead of making investments in public education.
In 1992, Jim Hunt became a governor with a mission. He wanted to improve public schools and provide children with the tools to succeed. He started Smart Start to better prepare children from disadvantaged families for first grade. He made a commitment to get teacher pay to the national average. He substantially reduced class size, especially in elementary schools. He wanted to reduce the dropout rate to produce more high school graduates. His goal-oriented philosophy drove the Democratic agenda for the next sixteen years.
Republicans have a different goal. They want to shrink the size of government, cut taxes and reduce regulation. They care less about the big picture of society than they do individual rights. The GOP doesn’t want to pull back the curtain to show the progress North Carolina made under Democrats from 1992 until the Great Recession hit in 2007. They want to pretend that history began with the crash and their mediocre investments in public schools are more substantial than they really are.