The state has seen a transformation in public education in the last four years since Republican Gov. Pat McCrory took office.
Education is an area in which governors seek to exert influence, and it’s a focus for parents, teachers and businesses.
Teacher pay is up as a result of focused efforts to move average pay from the near-bottom of national rankings. Average teacher pay was estimated to rank 41st last year.
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Thousands of students now use taxpayer money to attend religious and private schools, and the voucher program, budgeted at $24.8 million this year, is set to expand over the next dozen years to cost nearly $145 million. Students receive up to $4,200 a year for private school tuition.
Charter schools have expanded to include two online schools that connect students to teachers through the internet. The state lifted the 100-school charter limit in 2011, the year before McCrory won the governorship, and it now has 167.
McCrory has embraced school choice, including vouchers, which the state calls Opportunity Scholarships.
“The opportunity scholarship program is important not just because it serves as a model for the nation, but because it is rooted in our core belief as North Carolinians that every child – regardless of zip code, background or economic status – should have the opportunity to receive the best education possible,” he wrote for the online publishing site Medium.
Attorney General Roy Cooper, McCrory’s Democratic challenger, has said vouchers have the potential to hurt public education.
“Sending public taxpayer dollars to private schools is a slippery slope that can result in substandard education and weakening of already under-funded public schools,” Cooper said in a statement. “I oppose voucher programs that send taxpayer dollars to private schools at the expense of our public schools without accountability for educational achievements or other standards our public schools must reach.”
Libertarian candidate Lon Cecil supports school choice and expansion of vouchers, saying education no longer needs to be confined to “the red, brick schoolhouse.”
Cecil also wants to direct more money to education through a tax on medical marijuana similar to Nevada’s. Cecil proposes to send money directly to classrooms, leaving it to teachers to decide how to spend it.
Medical marijuana is not legal in North Carolina, however. Bills legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes have been snuffed out. A medical marijuana bill filed last year failed to get a committee hearing.
Continuing teacher pay increases is a goal for all three candidates.
McCrory has centered his campaign message on teacher raises and says more is to come. “There is still a lot more to do,” he said during the first October gubernatorial debate.
His campaign said in an email that McCrory is interested in opportunities for teachers to make as much or more than administrators so the best teachers will stay in the classroom. “These plans – like the governor’s teacher pay proposals were – should be developed in conjunction with the education community,” McCrory’s campaign wrote.
McCrory proposed in 2014 a “career-pathways” pilot program to let counties experiment with paying more to teachers who were mentors or took on leadership roles. He proposed spending $9 million for a few counties to try it, but the legislature did not go along.
Cooper wants to raise teacher pay to the national average. The National Education Association, a teachers union that has tracked school spending for decades, estimated that the national average classroom teacher salary in 2015-16 was a little more than $58,000. North Carolina Republicans say the state average is about $50,000.
“What I will do is invest in education,” Cooper said in the first debate. He contends state leaders are not paying enough attention to public education.
Average teacher salaries rose in the rankings in the late 1990s, when then-Gov. Jim Hunt pushed the state to raise teacher pay. Cooper was serving his last four years in the state Senate when the state’s average salary rank rose from 43 to 22.
To attract more top students to the teaching profession, Cooper wants to revive the N.C. Teaching Fellows, a scholarship program for prospective teachers that was an important recruitment tool for university schools of education.
The program provided four-year scholarships and enrichment programs to students who agreed to teach in the state for four years. The Republican legislature stopped funding Teaching Fellows in 2011 and the program graduated its last class in 2015.
The state House has proposed new, scaled-down teacher scholarship programs, and McCrory this year proposed a $2 million scholarship program for students who want to teach math or science. The ideas never made it into final budgets.
In an email, McCrory’s campaign listed raising teacher pay, expanding digital learning, improving the graduation rate and helping teachers eliminate duplicative or excessive testing as goals for a second term.
All schools have access to broadband, and the state has a goal of improving wireless coverage in school buildings. The State Board of Education has adopted a digital learning plan to guide development and expansion of teaching and learning with new technology.
Cutting back on testing, an idea popular with parents and teachers, is a goal candidates for governor have repeatedly cited over the years.
McCrory talked about reducing testing in his last campaign and in his State of the State address last year. A state Board of Education advisory committee came up with an idea, which the state Department of Public Instruction is now testing, to replace all-encompassing state tests on reading and math with smaller tests dispersed through the year.
Cooper also wants to “stop over-testing” and find new ways to determine what students have learned.
He wants to encourage school districts to give some principals more say in how they manage their schools.
Cooper said he would promote statewide policies that encourage “creativity in the classroom” and flexibility while ensuring high standards.