Point of View

N.C. education requires investment

June 17, 2012 

My mom and dad always told me that after I died, anyone who read my checkbook register would know the priorities in my life.

CEOs who think about moving their companies and jobs to North Carolina will look at our checkbook register – and they will know our priorities. What will they learn about us?

Think of all the companies that have moved to our state in the past 25 years. They didn’t come here just because of the temperate climate or the short drive from the mountains to the coast.

These companies didn’t come here for cheap labor, either. They came here for smart labor. They came for the creative and innovative environment that arises from proximity to some of the greatest universities on the planet. We are growing today because our educational institutions, at every level, have led the way.

So today, as the General Assembly contemplates next year’s budget – as 100 counties contemplate budgets to supplement their local school districts – we are at a turning point.

I know. Everyone always says we’re at a turning point. But tell me it isn’t true when:

•  The state university system has lost more than $1.2 billion in budget cuts and tax reversions since the 2008 financial meltdown.

•  Appropriations per student at our community colleges are down 12 percent.

•  Since 2008, our public schools have dropped from 25th to 45th in average teacher pay, and from 42nd to 46th in per-pupil expenditures.

Am I in favor of more government spending? I’m in favor of smart government spending. I believe most North Carolina. CEOs feel the same way.

Several years ago, we were recruiting a senior executive to Blue Cross. His home was in the Northeast. He had school-age children. He was considering accepting our offer, but first he wanted to be sure North Carolina public schools would be good for his kids.

That’s a very real issue. If you run a company here, you may have had similar experiences. There’s a constructive cycle that keeps spinning when good education begets good talent, which, in this knowledge economy, begets growing businesses and a growing tax base.

Our education system is the fulcrum. North Carolina’s quality of life pivots up or down from that central point. Businesses will choose North Carolina – or not – because of the quality of our workforce and the institutions that train it.

When I joined Blue Cross nearly 16 years ago, the company was making the transition from a claims processing outfit to a fully integrated health care management organization. We knew that if we kept operating our company the way we had in the 1980s, we wouldn’t stay in business. It was imperative that we change. And you can see it today in the commitments we’ve made – in other words, in our checkbook register.

The same is true with early childhood programs, K-12 schools, community colleges and our university system. They are not broken. They are not failing. But they need to change. And business leaders must encourage that change.

This is my call to every CEO who loves North Carolina. Whether you spend most of your time traveling in an airplane visiting customers, standing in front of investors on Wall Street or walking the factory floor – you have a stake in what happens in every aspect of our public education system from early childhood to the universities.

Recently, 50 business leaders from across the state came together to discuss how they might best engage in issues of public education. And this conversation was just the beginning. Those of us who lead North Carolina businesses have a voice. Some may assume they can automatically count CEOs as knee-jerk votes against any increase in the state budget. The truth is more complicated. The CEOs I know always weigh costs against benefits. They’re on the lookout for an investment that will profit the organization – or the state of North Carolina.

To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., a time comes when silence is betrayal – when silence becomes the ally of apathy and the status quo. Today is the day the business leaders of North Carolina must break the silence and advocate for our system of public education. We have no more important work.

J. Bradley Wilson is president and CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina. He is a former chairman of the UNC Board of Governors.

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