Voters Sour on Education Divestment

August 30, 2021

Today in 2021, we are a full decade into the North Carolina extreme-right’s long war on public education. The latest polling from Carolina Forward, however, suggests that Republican leaders are increasingly running into headwinds selling their education divestment agenda to the voters; and that attempts to make education a new culture war front have largely stalled.

Since being sworn in, Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson has made “political indoctrination in public schools” – a topic unheard-of before 2020 – his signature issue. Our latest polling indicates that Robinson’s quixotic strategy has mostly flopped. By a clear 8-point margin, North Carolina voters agree that low teacher pay and anemic public-school funding, not so-called “indoctrination,” is the biggest problem facing public education in the state:

Last week, the Lt. Governor’s office released a report that accuses thousands of North Carolina’s teachers of a diabolical and far-reaching liberal conspiracy to “indoctrinate” children. Though it sounds like something out of a crackpot relative’s chain email, this is in fact the central project of the Lt. Governor of North Carolina’s office. As meticulously documented by Justin Parmenter, Robinson’s taxpayer-funded fishing expedition to dig up “evidence” of indoctrination turned up little more than hardcore right-wing racial resentment:

"These submissions include recommendations to cancel Black History Month, pleas to stop making white students feel guilty by teaching so much about slavery–which one individual remarked “is getting old”–and suggestions to end hiring practices aimed at increasing diversity of school staff."

These poll results also suggest that Robinson and his GOP allies have mostly failed to persuade voters outside the Republican base that “indoctrination” is a serious issue. Not only have they lost Independent voters (let alone Democrats), but even in the GOP’s core base of white voters, respondents are evenly split. The only major group that agrees that “indoctrination” is the more important issue is rural voters. Interestingly, voters in suburban and urban areas - supposedly the more liberal areas of the state - strongly reject the “indoctrination” proposition.

Much of this ambivalence for the issue is to be expected, as teachers and schools are both highly visible, well-known and deeply embedded in their communities. There are nearly 1.5 million North Carolina children in school and around 100,000 school teachers, not including principals, counselors, assistants and other staff. In many counties, school systems are the single biggest employer. Most people know a teacher personally, or several, and as we’ve written about before, voters like and trust them. Convincing people to believe a far-reaching conspiracy about the teachers and schools in their own community is a very hard sell, as this poll confirms.

Voters Disagree with Budget Priorities

While enthusiasm about “indoctrination” is middling, what voters do care very much about is the failure of North Carolina’s leaders to invest in its public schools. Voters remain extremely skeptical of the GOP’s ordering of fiscal priorities. This polling found that large majorities of North Carolinians believe it is more important to invest in education than to once again cut personal income taxes:

By a two-to-one margin (60% to 29%), voters believe it is more important to invest in public schools than to cut personal income taxes. Here again even Republicans support their party’s position by a mere 47%-41%.  Rural voters, another key part of the Republican base, prefer education funding by a smashing 51%-33% spread. Though not pictured here, we even found that both hourly workers and salaried workers supported increasing education funding over cutting personal income taxes by similar margins. Whether voters are affluent or just getting by in North Carolina, they mostly reject the legislature’s obsession with tax cuts.

Overall, in fact, North Carolinians believe it is a better idea to raise taxes on corporations and invest in education than to further cut their taxes:

Raising corporate taxes is a very reasonable position: North Carolina already charges corporations the lowest tax rate of any state with a corporate tax. (Note: See our infographic explainer on North Carolina’s corporate income tax.) Despite the persistence of anti-tax dogma as the central organizing principle of the GOP, a mere 33% of Republicans prefer to cut taxes over investing in education. An almost equal 32% of GOP voters want to raise taxes on corporations, a striking result that shows how extreme the NCGOP’s priorities are even compared to those of the voters who support the party.

Divesting from public education, demonizing teachers and abolishing taxes for big corporations makes for a curious political strategy. Yet due to blatant gerrymandering in the legislature, most North Carolina Republican legislators know that they will face little or no accountability to the voters for their actions. This being the case, they are free to cater instead to big-dollar donors and lobbyists. The public of North Carolina - and particularly its children - must pay the price.

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