Empty Words

I’m knee-deep in drafting the SoSNC voter guide this week, and one thing that we’re be looking for is legislators who have made statements in support of public education.  But of course, all statements aren’t created equal, and today I’d like to talk about one education-related boast in particular that sticks in my craw (if you read Stu Egan’s piece on bad education talking points, this one topped his list, too):

“Our budget contains more money for education than we have ever spent before.”  It’s an oft-repeated refrain, one we hear both from the General Assembly and from county commissioners, usually as the budgets they tout fall far short of funding even the basic needs of our schools.  This line bothers me not just because it is meaningless on its face, but also because of what it says about the people who say it and about their attitude toward public education.

First, on its face, the “more than ever before” statement is ridiculous.  If the purpose of a budget is to meet the financial responsibilities of the body creating it, then the success of the budget lies not its its total size, but on its ability actually to fulfill those responsibilities.  In fact, the total size of the budget is irrelevant to its adequacy.  Think about it — if my electric bill goes up because electricity has gotten more expensive and the summer’s been hot,  what happens if I send Duke Energy a check for 60% of my bill and a note saying it’s more than I’ve ever spent before?  I’ll get my electricity turned off.   The relative size of the bill matters not at all, only that it is paid.

But beyond its silliness, the statement is also revealing of a deeper (and concerning) attitude toward public education:  It casts education funding as a choice, not as a responsibility.  If we’re supposed to be grateful for any increase in education spending, no matter how inadequate, then the unstated corollary is that we should be grateful for any education funding at all.   On a state level in particular, this is problematic.

The North Carolina constitution charges the state with providing a free public education to every child in NC.  That means adequate funding for education is literally the least we should expect of the NCGA.  It’s a part of their job so basic that it’s written right into the Constitution.   A budget that falls short of full education funding is a failure, and any legislator presenting such a budget should do so with humility and a darned good explanation.   If, instead, that legislator claims the budget is a success and himself a hero merely because the budget provides some education funds, then either he misunderstands the NCGA’s constitutional responsibility, or is hoping that you do.  Don’t fall for it.

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