N.C. Sen. Hagan attacks challenger Tillis on education cuts

Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2014. (Mary F. Calvert/MCT)
Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2014. (Mary F. Calvert/MCT) MCT

U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan on Tuesday accused her Republican challenger, Thom Tillis, of slashing funding for public education in North Carolina and argued that he’d hurt education further if he wins her Senate seat in Washington.

Tillis, speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, said in a primary debate on April 22 that he’d consider eliminating the U.S. Department of Education. His first priority as a U.S. senator, he said then, would be “clawing back” regulations and deciding whether the department “needs to exist in its current form.”

The Hagan campaign called that idea part of Tillis’ “destructive education agenda.” The federal education agency is responsible for, among other programs and policies, Pell grants for low-income college students and federal aid for low-income schools and disabled students. The department is expected to send $910 million to North Carolina for elementary and secondary education in 2015, according to data the agency posted online in July.

“Eliminating the Department of Education is a fringe, out of the mainstream idea that runs against our common sense North Carolina values,” Hagan said in news release. “It would put thousands of our students and teachers at risk at a time when they’ve already been asked to shoulder the burden of Speaker Tillis’ irresponsible education budget. After doing so much damage in Raleigh, promising to eliminate the Department of Education as his first action is just one more reason Speaker Tillis has the wrong priorities.”

Tillis press secretary Meghan Burris on Tuesday said he would preserve assistance to schools, financial aid and student loans. She said his view is that the department could be run more efficiently and provide more flexibility to states.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, a nonpartisan agency that provides financial analysis, recently reported that the Education Department is one of the smallest federal agencies.

Advocates of smaller government for years have talked about eliminating the department. The CBO said more than 95 percent of the Education Department’s budget was obligated for grants to college students and to state and local governments.

Matt Canter, deputy executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, wrote in a memo on Tuesday that Tillis’ suggestion that the Department of Education could be cut was one of three positions he was “forced to adopt” in the primary to appease the GOP’s right wing that could hurt him in the general election.

Tillis has also rejected the scientific view that climate change is real, calling it “false science,” and opposed a federal minimum wage, contending that it should be left up to the states.

North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature, with Tillis leading the House, passed income tax cuts in 2013 that resulted in a reduction in funding for education of $480 million over 2013 and 2014. The legislature met again this year and made budget adjustments that Gov. Pat McCrory signed last week. The budget agreement gives an average 7 percent raise to teachers, after factoring in longevity pay. Under the plan, teachers with the most experience get the smallest raise.

In addition, a major change in the latest budget agreement is that state funds no longer will automatically pay for growth in school enrollment.

Hagan plays a role in education policy as a member of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. She and Sens. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., sponsored the AMERICA Works Act, which was included in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act that became law in July.

The legislation streamlines workforce training services. A Hagan proposal included in the law required job training centers to prioritize funding for training for nationally recognized credentials for jobs that employers say they need to fill.

But Congress, split by partisan differences, has not reached agreement on the major education policy bills covering elementary and secondary education, and higher education. Both are past due for updates. The Senate versions of these bills contain amendments Hagan has proposed.

The Tillis campaign has accused Hagan of having no accomplishments since she entered the Senate in 2009. Her campaign has pushed back. In education, for example, it says that she voted for a measure in 2010 that directed stimulus money to the states for education, including $300 million to North Carolina to save teacher jobs during the recession.

Hagan also voted for the 2009 stimulus bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which included $4 billion for competitive grants to states that agreed to education reforms, an Obama administration program called Race to the Top. North Carolina received a grant of $400 million. In addition, two districts in North Carolina also received grants: $30 million to Guilford County and $20 million to Iredell Statesville Schools.