RALEIGH — North Carolina's high school graduation rate has moved above the national average for the first time in history, a point that Democrats quickly tried to exploit in the ongoing legislative budget wars.
A new survey found that the graduation rate for Tar Heel students rose to 72.8 percent, slightly above the national average of 71.7 percent in 2008, the most recent year such state-by-state comparisons were available.
It was the second-highest jump in the country over a 10-year period, from 1998 to 2008, according to state officials. Only Tennessee showed greater improvement.
Democratic leaders immediately said it was an indication that North Carolina's education system was working, despite criticism from Republican lawmakers who have pushed for various alternatives including expanding charter schools, merit pay for teachers and some limited vouchers for private schools.
"Through this legislative session I have heard over and over again that our public school system is broken," June Atkinson, the Democratic state superintendent of public instruction, said at a news conference Tuesday.
"Today's news from an outside, reputable source answers that criticism," Atkinson said. "A broken system cannot produce the results that we have reported to you today."
The 2011 Diplomas Count report was issued by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, publisher of Education Week.
Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue took up the theme, both at the news conference, and in a speech before business leaders at the RBC Center later in the day.
She said the state had made "an enormous improvement" in the dropout rate in one decade.
"That says a lot for a Southern state that 50 years ago didn't focus on high school graduation or academic achievement," Perdue said. "We are making so much progress in North Carolina. Nothing makes me angrier than to hear people say the system we have doesn't work, that it's broken, throw it out, privatize it, get rid of it."
Although 2008 was the last year in which national comparisons were available, Atkinson said that the high school graduation rate has continued to climb since then. Using a slightly different formula from the national survey, Atkinson said North Carolina's graduation rate had risen from 71.8 percent in 2008 to 74.2 percent in 2009-2010.
The release of the graduation figures comes at time of intense debate, when Perdue is trying to decide whether to veto a budget bill passed by the Republican-dominated legislature that she says cuts education too deeply. She told reporters Tuesday that she had not decided whether she will veto the bill.
At the RBC Center, Perdue told about 150 businesspeople that the Republican budget would drop North Carolina education spending from 46th to 49th, pushing it below Mississippi.
"It's like somebody deciding they are going to clear-cut all of North Carolina's long leaf pines for short-term profits," Perdue said.
Republican Senate leader Phil Berger of Eden questioned the validity of the dropout rate study, saying it is inconsistent with other dropout figures he has seen.
"Having somewhere between 25 and 30 percent of our kids not graduating is nothing to brag about," Berger said in an interview. "We should all take a step back and realize these are not good numbers."
Berger also said the governor was distorting the legislative budget. He noted that it contained many reforms likely to have broad support, including reducing class size in the early grades and an emphasizing reading.
He said the amount of money in the Republican budget for education is very close to what Perdue proposed in her budget. So if Perdue is arguing that the Republican budget is damaging education, Berger said, Perdue should have to defend her own education budget proposal.
"We say our budget puts more money in K-12 than her budget does," Berger said.
But Senate Democrats released information from the Southern Regional Education Board saying the proposed GOP budget would make deeper education cuts than any other Southern state.
Berger urged Perdue to either sign or veto the budget, so that local school systems could begin preparing their own budgets for the new school year.
"The governor should clearly take into account that the budget passed with super majorities in both the House and the Senate," Berger told reporters.
Meanwhile, a group with the backing of the N.C. Association of Educators has begun running a TV commercial urging voters to tell lawmakers to keep a temporary 1-cent sales tax in place and not cut education spending.
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