It was a dark time in the history of North Carolina education.Grossly underfunded public schools struggled just to keep the doors open. Tens of thousands of teachers lost their jobs, while tens of thousands of neglected students simply wandered out of their schools to form the core of a new socio-ed-ucational underclass. Ignorance bred unemployment, civil unrest, and widespread book-burnings — although perhaps North Carolinians were just trying to keep warm by burning discarded textbooks.

Let’s shine a light on that dark time: 1998.

In that year, a Democratic governor and legislature approved a budget that spent an average of about $8,700 per student (in today’s dollars) on North Carolina elementary and secondary education.

What was the result? Did public education experience “generational damage,” as Gov. Beverly Perdue might have put it? Indeed, as a member of the state senate at the time, Perdue helped put the education budget together. Did she offer any ominous words of warning about the coming educational apocalypse?

Of course not. To spend $8,700 per student in state, local, and federal dol-lars was to make a significant investment in public schools. It represented a 16 percent increase in education funding from just five years before, after adjusting for inflation and enrollment growth. And $8,700 was far more than the average per-pupil spending of North Carolina’s charter or private schools.As it happens, $8,700 per pupil is a low-ball estimate of how much money North Carolina would spend on its public schools if the House Republican budget were to become law. Reportedly the Senate budget will allocate a somewhat-higher amount.

Yes, that would represent a real decline from a peak of about $9,500 in 2007-08. But $8,700 per pupil remains a sizable sum. Anyone who claims that it repre-sents the end of public education as we know must explain how North Carolina’s public schools survived 1998, when the real funding level was about the same.

The problem with North Carolina’s education system is not a lack of funding. It is a lack of productivity. With nearly 20 percent more funding than public schools spent in the mid-1990s, do today’s public schools perform that much better? Not even close. While the state’s math scores have slightly exceeded the national average since the late 1990s, our reading scores and graduation rates remain substandard.

Perdue and her allies argue that Republicans should renege on their 2010 campaign promise and extend the sales-tax hike now scheduled to expire in July. Democrats point to recent polls showing public support for the sales tax if it saves public schools from massive cuts.

This is an old, old story. Most voters have no idea how much government al-ready spends on public schools. Because virtually everyone thinks that educating the next generation should be a high fiscal priority, poll respondents frequently re-spond to simplistic questions about taxes and education in ways that the education establishment welcomes.

But when pollsters go beyond simplistic questions to probe what voters really think about the tradeoff between education budgets and taxes, the results are sig-nificantly different.

For example, when Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance conducted its nationwide survey on education issues last year, it first asked voters if they favored an increase in “government funding for public schools in your district.” Nearly two-thirds of respondents said yes. Then respondents were told how much money their public schools currently spent per pupil, and asked again. Fewer than a third still said they favored more funding.

Similarly, a new Civitas Institute poll shows that when North Carolina voters are told how much the extended sales-tax hike would cost, they express overwhelm-ing opposition.

If North Carolina voters knew that their public schools spent about $9,000 per student, it is highly unlikely that most would pay hundreds of millions of dollars in sales taxes to keep the figure from falling to $8,700.

That’s why the education establishment, furiously spinning reality in an attempt to pocket more of the taxpayers’ money, avoids any mention of budgetary specifics. Public ignorance is in their interest.

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