RALEIGH — In a previous column, I noted that the Left’s crusade against conservative ideas and politicians in North Carolina faces an implacable foe: the time-space continuum. Leftist predictions that reducing North Carolina’s sales tax in 2011 would result in weaker economic growth have proven in hindsight to be wildly off-the-mark. And leftist claims that ending extended benefits in the state caused a decline in labor-force participation have the defect of asserting a July 2013 cause for a February 2013 effect.
The Left’s problem with Time goes deeper than that, however. Consider two recent examples: a claim by former North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt that his teacher-pay increase in the late 1990s led to major gains in student performance, and a claim by Obamacare champions that the bill has already resulted in containment of health care costs.
In a recent op-ed, Hunt recounted the history of the Excellent Schools Act, enacted in 1997 by a North Carolina legislature split between a Democratic Senate and a Republican House. Let’s set aside for now the fundamental error of using raw data, unadjusted for differences in cost of living and teacher experience, to rank states by average teacher salaries. Instead, look at one of Hunt’s key claims about the teacher-pay hike he helped to engineer from 1997 to 2000:
“By the year 2001, teacher pay in North Carolina had reached the national average. The average teacher’s salary went up more than a third — from $31,000 to $42,000. We rose from 43rd in the national rankings to the top 20.
“Student learning went up, too. Our average SAT scores rose 40 points, more than any other state. Our students made the highest gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress of any state.”
Gov. Hunt is a smart man and a successful politician, but this is a poorly constructed argument, to say the least. There was a period during which North Carolina posted a 40-point gain in SAT scores and a large gain in NAEP scores. But this period predated the implementation of the Excellent Schools Act and its teacher-pay hikes.
From 1990 to 2000, the state’s average SAT score rose by 40 points. During the following decade, 2000 to 2010, it rose by only 16 points. As for the NAEP, North Carolina’s average eighth-grade math score rose a dramatic 30 points from 1990 to 2000, but only 10 points from 2000 to 2013, compared to the average national gain of 12 points. In reading, North Carolina experienced solid gains during the early to mid-1990s. From 1998 to 2013, however, our 8th-grade scores rose just three points compared to the average national gain of four points.
It is simply impossible for an increase in teacher pay to the “national average” by 2001 to have caused test-score gains that occurred before 2001, and indeed for the most part that occurred before 1997. If anything, the data show that gains in North Carolina student performance were smaller after the teacher-pay hike than they were before it.
(By the way, even opinion pieces need to be edited for accuracy. Gov. Hunt shouldn’t have made such an obviously faulty claim, but whoever edited the op-ed should also have had taken the time to check the claim, particularly given the prominence of the author and the issue.)
Now, a quick look at medical costs. Over the past two months, Obamacare proponents have tried to change the subject from the disastrous launch of insurance exchanges by pointing out that health care spending grew slower in 2012 than the historical average growth rate. They then claimed a causal role for Obamacare. But the decline in annual growth rates began in 2002, not 2012. Indeed, as David Freddoso points out in the Washington Examiner, real (CPI-adjusted) health care spending rose by 2 percent in 2012, up a bit from 1.1 percent in 2010 and 1.2 percent in 2011. All those rates are low by historical standards, certainly, but they are the culmination of a longer-term trend, not the effect of a health care law that is only now being implemented to a significant degree.
“Hide nothing,” wrote Sophocles, “for time, which sees all and hears all, exposes all.”
John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.