ELLIOT: The problem with overblown education rhetoric

Democrats hoping to paint Gov. Pat McCrory and Republican legislators as anti-education had a tough August, and September isn’t shaping up too well either. After McCrory hit the airwaves with a campaign advertisement touting the fact that N.C. teachers received the largest pay raise in the nation during his term, his opponent Roy Cooper responded with an ad that profiles a Durham teacher who says she is leaving the state for greener paychecks in Virginia.McCrory’s campaign wasted no time fighting back, pointing out that, according to her number of years of service, the teacher in question received somewhere between a 20.9 percent to 23.4 percent raise since 2013. And Charlotte radio station WFAE calculated that she now makes just $190 more in salary than she did in Durham. (It would just be piling on to mention that since Virginia begins taxing income $7,000 before North Carolina does, she’ll likely take home less in the end.)The ad had other problems too, claiming that the state’s rank for teacher pay had “fallen” to 41st. In reality, it has risen to 41st from 47th, and those rankings do not take into account the differences in cost of living between states.Results, however, matter more than inputs. And on Sept. 1, conservative education reformers got more good news. The state released data that show improving standardized test scores and graduation rates across North Carolina.”This is good news for our state, and especially good news for students who will have more opportunities available to them because they have completed high school,” said state Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson.Atkinson is a Democrat, but she’s also on the ballot in November, so don’t expect her to toe the line on education results. Indeed, Atkinson said the state was headed in the “right direction,” directly contradicting a key Democratic talking point — that McCrory is taking the state “backward.”The lesson here is the danger of extreme rhetoric in political campaigns. North Carolina Democrats moved from conventional opposition to Republican educational policies to claiming that Republicans actually wanted to destroy public education in the state. The harbinger of this line of attack came in an August 2015 Washington Post op-ed by James Hogan, a writer and fundraiser at Davidson College. “I am no fan of hyperbole, but I mean it when I say this: North Carolina is waging war against public education,” Hogan began.There were plenty of factual errors and sloppy arguments in Hogan’s piece, but its main weakness was the thesis itself — that Republicans, for goodness-knows-what reason, actually are pursuing “a cohesive and coordinated attack against public schools.” Taking Hogan at his word, as he apparently wanted us to do, makes it quite easy to refute his argument. Almost any available evidence to the contrary will suffice, since he, and the politicians who have followed his lead, have made their hypothesis so beyond the pale.With education results improving and teacher pay rising, only two conclusions are possible from the Democratic premise. The first is that while Republicans genuinely want to destroy public schools, they are just really, really bad at it. The second is that Republicans truly care about education, they just have different ideas than do Democrats for how to accomplish the same object.Voters in November will need to choose which one of those conclusions seems more likely.