Third in a series
For all the talk about how schools need to change to meet the needs of a modern workplace, public education never really stands still.
In the past five years, North Carolina school districts have added speciality schools focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematicsand made it possible for more students to earn two-year college degrees – all part of a push to increase high school graduation rates and make students ready for the workforce.
The two major-party candidates for governor both stress close connections between education and business but approach the question of improving education from different angles. Democrat Walter Dalton would extend already established paths, while Republican Pat McCrory’s education proposals have the potential to remake the state’s public education system from kindergarten through college.
McCrory wants high schools to offer two diploma tracks, an academic path and a vocational path, as a way to reduce the dropout rate among students who have no interest in pursuing a four-year college degree. The state celebrated in August a high school graduation rate of more than 80 percent, but still, too many students aren’t graduating, McCrory said in an interview.
“We’re force-feeding too many kids into a curriculum that doesn’t match their skill set or what the marketplace needs,” he said.
McCrory wants performance pay for teachers and an education system oriented toward market demands. If businesses need engineers, for example, but new law school graduates can’t find jobs, public universities should encourage enrollment in science and reduce available law school slots, he said.
“We have a disconnect between the education policies and our commerce policies,” said McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, who is senior director of strategic initiatives at the Moore & Van Allen law firm. “We have to bring the two together.”
Dalton also wants closer ties between education and workforce development, but he would take more familiar approaches by building on established projects, some of which he helped start as a state senator. The state has new early college high schools, one specializing in agriculture and biotechnology and the other in language and global studies, recommended by a commission that Dalton led.
These specialty schools are a version of early college high schools – five-year programs on community college campuses, where high school students have the opportunity to earn associate’s degrees – that first opened in the state in 2005. A big part of Dalton’s education pitch is that his work in the legislature helped establish successful schools.
“I’ve done it,” he said. “I’ve been involved all the way.”
Dalton: Add funding
The story of state government the past two years has been the battles between Democrats, led by Gov. Bev Perdue, and the Republican-controlled legislature. Education is a thread that runs through debates not just on money, but economic development and school employment.
Central to those fights was the budget and how much money the state should spend on education, which takes up more than half of state spending
Most Democrats maintained that education cuts were too deep, and wanted to continue part of a temporary sales tax to pay for schools.
Republicans rejected the calls to renew the sales tax increase and other suggestions for raising money, saying the state needed to live within its means.
Dalton was elected lieutenant governor in 2008 after serving a dozen years as a state senator from Rutherford County. He has criticized the Republican-authored budgets, and has based his campaign around support for education.
He wants to restore some of the education budget reductions of the last two years. He wants to raise teacher salaries to the national average over four or five years, a proposal in the mold of former Gov. Jim Hunt. Hunt, a Democrat, who has endorsed Dalton.
The average teacher salary in North Carolina was $46,791 in 2010-2011, and the national average was $55,623. Bridging that salary gap then would have cost $715.6 million a year. The actual cost of Dalton’s proposal would depend on new state and national averages and the years it takes to reach the target.
The state K-12 budget hit a high in 2008-09, at about $8 billion. Democrats started cutting when the recession hit – the budget was about $7.3 billion in 2010-11 – but federal stimulus money blunted the impact. This year’s budget is $7.5 billion.
Dalton says he’ll direct $626 million back to education in the first year by closing tax loopholes, aggressively collecting delinquent taxes, and using revenue from economic growth.
To raise $141 million, he would repeal a new income tax break that has benefited partners in law firms and other business owners with incomes of more than $100,000. Eliminating another new corporate tax break would bring in $32 million. Delinquent tax collections and business license fees would bring in $140 million, and Dalton estimates $400 million in new tax revenue.
Dalton has the endorsement of the N.C. Association of Educators, which vigorously fought last year’s budget cuts.
McCrory says tax revenue may be moved around the broad education budget, but he’s not calling for more. “There is no new money,” McCrory said. McCrory maintains that the state budget isn’t really balanced because it owes the federal government more than $2 billion – money it borrowed to pay unemployment benefits.
He argues that public education from pre-kindergarten through graduate education needs to be re-examined because too many students are dropping out of high school and some of those who go to community colleges and universities must take remedial courses to learn what they should already know coming out of high school.
“We don’t need to pour in more money,” he said. “You first fix the system. If more money is needed, I’ll find it” by cutting inefficiency and waste.
Innovation in Vance
In Vance County, some the ideas touted by both candidates are already getting a try.
Vance was one of five poor counties that sued the state in 1994, pushing for more state funding for education. The case led to a landmark state Supreme Court decision that over the years put a spotlight on struggling students, high schools with low graduation rates and problem middle schools.
Vance, a rural county about 40 miles north of Raleigh, is still economically distressed 15 years after the Supreme Court decision. But the school district is dramatically different, home to a variety of newer-style public schools.
It has charter schools; a new middle school focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics; and an early college high school, where students take classes on the leafy Henderson campus of Vance-Granville Community College. Students enroll in a five-year program that offers the chance to earn a high school diploma and an associate’s degree.
The state points to the early college high schools as one of its successful strategies for reducing the dropout rate. Principal Michael Bullard says that only one student has dropped out of the school.
Students say the chance to leave high school with college credit and a head start toward a four-year degree is a major draw. Dalton campaign stops include visits to early college high schools around the state because he uses them as examples of successful innovation.
Traditional schools in Vance are focusing more attention on vocational education, known these days as career and technical education.
That’s in evidence at Southern Vance High School in Henderson, which offers an array of courses in health sciences, digital media and a revived agriculture program. The dropout rate at Southern Vance is still higher than the state average, but the career-related courses are part of a strategy to keep more students engaged.
“Showing relevance is going to keep kids in school,” principal Stephanie Ayscue said.
Showing how school lessons translate to life beyond the classroom is as popular idea these days, but McCrory would take the notion a step further by establishing distinct course requirements for students planning to pursue university degrees and those planning to seek jobs or technical training after graduation. McCrory compared the difference to a college student seeking a bachelor of arts degree versus a bachelor of science degree.
Christopher Hill, director of the Education and Law Project at the left-leaning N.C. Justice Center, said the most direct way to improve public education is to increase the budget. A critic of McCrory’s plan, he suggested that low-income and minority students could be steered to vocational education.
High schools students may not be ready to make a choice about their education that will have lifelong repercussions, he said.
“You don’t want a workforce that can do one thing,” Hill said. “You don’t want drone workers. You want workers to think creatively.”
Business people want workers educated with specific jobs in mind. Some like McCrory’s plan for vocational diplomas.
“I think we need to offer flexibility to each student and help the student figure out what the right track for them is,” said Walter McDowell III, retired Wachovia CEO for Carolinas Banking. McDowell helped lead a group in Winston-Salem that works to improve education in Forsyth County.
But even students earning vocational diplomas need to know that they’ll need some school or training afterward to land a high-paying job, McDowell said.
“If you only graduate from high school, you probably will not make a living wage,” he said.