RALEIGH — North Carolina’s race for governor offers sharply different views about the state of Tar Heel public education. Democrats argue that the system is slowly being starved of funds, while Republican Pat McCrory says reform is needed more than money.
The Democratic hopefuls have picked up the theme of Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, that North Carolina is in danger of losing its place as an education leader in the South. She blames budget cuts pushed through by the Republican-led legislature last year.
“You can not get quality education on the cheap,” former U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge told the N.C. Association of School Administrators forum meeting in Raleigh last week.
“The state is going to have to decide whether it’s going to commit themselves to quality education or whether we are going to keep sliding backwards,” Etheridge said. “I really believe this election in November and on May 8th will determine that kind of focus.’’
But McCrory last week called North Carolina’s secondary and elementary schools “a broken system” that needs to be shaken up with more accountability, fewer social promotions and more emphasis on vocational education.
Education has been one of the major issues in the May 8 Democratic primary, even if few policy differences have emerged among the three major candidates – Etheridge, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, and state Rep. Bill Faison of Orange County.
Even though Perdue is not seeking re-election, she has helped set the tone of the Democratic primary with her criticism of the Republican legislature. She has called on the legislature to reinstate the three-quarters-cent temporary sales tax that was passed by the 2009 Democratic legislature to ease the pain of school cuts.
Democrats try to stand out
While the Democrats agree on the broad policy issues, they have tried to separate themselves based on their varying levels of experience, commitment and passion for the issue.
Etheridge says he would not be running for governor if not for education – and it is the centerpiece of his campaign stump speech.
“I promise you,” Etheridge said, “I will be as aggressive as governor as I was as state superintendent.’’
Etheridge, 71, has a long involvement in public education, beginning when he was elected as Harnett County commissioner in 1974. He was defeated two years later, after pushing through a plan to build three high schools, but was rewarded in the next election by being sent to the legislature.
As co-chairman of the state House budget committee, he helped write and sponsor one of the major education initiatives of the past 40 years – the Basic Education Program. It was a 10-year program that, beginning in 1985, pumped $3.5 billion into North Carolina schools for language classes, art, music guidance counseling and much more. It reduced class size, bought more textbooks, supplied more equipment for science classes. Etheridge was part of the Democratic leadership team that pushed the BEP.
“It put thousands of teachers and teacher assistants and arts in our public schools,” Etheridge told the forum.
At one time, the BEP pushed North Carolina’s per-pupil spending from 39th in the country to 28th, although it later slipped back to 34th. (It is now 42nd.) But the results were mixed. While SAT college board scores rose faster than the national average during that period, North Carolina was ranked 48th nationally at the beginning of the program and 48th at the end.
In 1988, Etheridge moved from the legislature to state superintendent of public instruction, where he served eight stormy years.
Soon after Etheridge took office, North Carolina students fell to last in SAT college board scores. Etheridge responded by putting together a high-powered committee, including businessmen such as bankers Hugh McColl and Ed Crutchfield. Among other things, he had sophomores take practice SAT scores and implemented more assessment testing. Each year, SAT scores rose, 33 points while the rest of the nation increased seven points. But at the end of his tenure North Carolina had risen only to 48th, moving ahead of Georgia and South Carolina.
Etheridge saw his staff cut in half – from 1,014 to 500 – first by economies he initiated and then by legislature efforts. Finally, he had much of his staff shifted from his authority to the control of the State Board of Education.
Etheridge was locked in a power struggle with first the Republican-controlled Board of Education, and then with the Democrats when Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt returned to office in 1993. Much of the power in the department was turned over to state board chairman Jay Robinson.
“The department is a real disaster,” Robinson, who is now deceased, said in 1995. “Bobby is not a manager and not able to handle his staff.”
Etheridge dismisses the controversy as a power struggle over who controls public education that has continued until recent days with efforts to undercut the current superintendent, June Atkinson.
At one point, Etheridge noted, he even brought a suit against Republican Gov. Jim Martin, later dropping it when Hunt became governor.
After moving to Congress in 1997, Etheridge also focused on education, spending 10 years trying to convince lawmakers that the federal government should issue bonds to help build schools. It was not until Congress passed President Barack Obama’s stimulus package in 2009 that $26 billion in zero interest bonds for school construction loans became available. North Carolina’s share is $500 million.
“There were a lot of people who didn’t believe (the federal government) ought to be building schools,” Etheridge said. “I happen to disagree. If you are going to build prisons, you should build schools.’’
Key policy architect
No other gubernatorial candidate has a record in education that spans decades like Etheridge.
But Dalton has been a key architect in setting state education policy for the past decade, as co-chairman of the Senate budget committee, lieutenant governor, and as member of the State Board of Education.
Perhaps his major role has been in the Early Colleges program, which allows students, beginning in the 9th grade, to take college courses while still in high school and, at the end of five years, either end up with a technical degree or having completed the first two years of college. Dalton, who introduced the enabling legislation in 2003, believes it has been successful in discouraging dropouts, engaging bright young people and allowing people to get through school earlier.
“We have one third of the early colleges in the nation today,” Dalton said. “The New York Times said it is a model for the nation. Seven of the top 10 high schools for graduation were early colleges. ... The valedictorian at N.C. State two years ago was the product of Early College. So I am excited about that.”
As chairman of the state eLearning Commission, Dalton has also championed more online learning. North Carolina is operating the second largest virtual high school in the nation, and the University of North Carolina offers more online courses than any state university system in the country, Dalton said.
Dalton has spent a good part of his three years as lieutenant governor traveling across the state, chairing meetings of the Joining our Business and Schools (JOBS) Commission, which looks for ways to tie education more directly to the needs of the marketplace.
Up front for sales tax
Faison has not played as significant a role in setting education policy as Etheridge or Dalton.
But he has been the candidate who has been most out front in pushing for the restoration of the three-quarters cent sales tax to help fund education. He began building support for restoring the sales tax last summer among his fellow lawmakers, traveling around the state.
“We have got to invest in education,” Faison said. “The question is, how are we going to get the funds in place?”
Appearing before Western Wake Democrats in Cary with Etheridge last week, Faison said he had been on the front lines of the fight with the Republicans.
“They can talk about things they did 30 years ago, 20 years, or 10 years ago,” Faison said. “But there is not a single one who can step up and tell you what they have done in the last six months to fight these Republicans – or the past year, for that matter.’’
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