NC governor candidates on teacher pay, school spending, pre-K, other education issues

Pat McCrory, Roy Cooper and Lon Cecil, from left
Pat McCrory, Roy Cooper and Lon Cecil, from left

As part of an assessment of how the state is doing heading into a critical election Nov. 8, The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer asked the candidates for governor about their plans for education. Here are answers from Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and his challengers, Democrat Roy Cooper and Libertarian Lon Cecil.

Q: North Carolina per-pupil spending lags well behind the national average and behind its neighbors. Should North Carolina spend more in its public school classrooms, and where should it find the money?

Cecil: NC clearly needs more spending in the classroom and teaching positions. This will have to be achieved by reducing the overhead of non-teaching “administrators” and assuring that additional funding be insulated from any new administrative skimming.

Legalizing medical cannabis in North Carolina, following the Nevada or California models, would provide significant new revenue, using taxes that are already law in North Carolina. From the glory days of tobacco, we have the expertise and facilities to grow the plants, process the leaves and prepare the stalks for fiber uses, and even roll the material on the idled cigarette machines in our state. We have the industries that can prepare medical extracts, which eliminates the hazards of smoking the leaves. It would be important that the legislature allocate more of the money than they did for the lottery.

Cooper: We can and must invest more money in education. It’s simply a matter of priorities. Right now we are 41st in the nation in teacher pay. When I was Senate majority leader we took North Carolina from 42nd to 21st in teacher pay, and we can do it again.

I will make public education a priority. I have released a comprehensive education plan that starts with respecting our teachers by giving them the pay they deserve. The plan is at roycooper.com.

McCrory: Since becoming governor, we have increased public education funding each year in office and increased the share of the state’s budget going to education. We have also increased per pupil funding. But we are only able to invest more in education because we have managed our budget responsibly and delivered nearly $1 billion in budget surpluses. After my opponent and his allies allowed education funding to be slashed by $1 billion and pushed teacher salaries to the bottom in the nation, we should continue to find ways to make additional investments in education.

Q: Based on test scores, most of the “F” rated schools in North Carolina are high-poverty schools where at least 80 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. What should be done to improve high-poverty schools?

Cecil: Convert to charter schools, minimum. Replace the entire administrative staff, or reduce their pay to match the average paid in that school.

Cooper: Helping our lowest-performing schools teach students effectively requires more support from the state. These schools serve a larger population of at-risk students who often have greater needs and require more educational support to ensure they receive a high-quality education.

We have an obligation to provide all students a quality education. The state’s “Turning Around North Carolina’s Lowest-Achieving Schools” (TALAS) program is making good progress in professional development and school planning that has improved student outcomes. I will maximize federal dollars to help transform and turn around the bottom 5 percent of our schools and look for opportunities to support proven interventions customized to the unique needs of these schools and their students.

McCrory: I signed the bipartisan achievement school district bill into law in order to help turn around failing schools by bringing in new management to run them. This pilot program, which will start with five of the lowest-performing schools in the state, should be evaluated and improved as we learn from its successes and challenges.

Q: Would you advocate expanding state-funded prekindergarten, and if so, how would you accomplish it?

Cecil: NO. It would be an expansion of day care.

Cooper: North Carolina’s economy benefits when children have a strong start in school, and children benefit from better academic performance and career success later in life. Early childhood education improves school readiness for all young children and helps to ease the transition into elementary school.

State funding for Smart Start and NC Pre-K has stayed the same in recent years even though the population of young children has been growing. Both programs are millions below pre-recession funding levels. This despite the fact that children in counties participating in Smart Start and NC Pre-K have higher third-grade reading and math scores and are less likely to require special education placements. These programs are especially important for at-risk children who benefit from early childhood education the most.

Despite the proven success, only 21 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in NC Pre-K. I will work to increase funding for Smart Start and NC Pre-K, with a sustainable plan that gives priority to serving more at-risk children.

McCrory: We have expanded the number of state-funded pre-K program slots and should continue to look at expanding it for at risk students as funding becomes available.

Q: In the recent round of new charter school approvals, North Carolina’s State Board of Education took a more cautious approach, giving the green light to 13 schools and denying 11. In the fall of 2017, 171 charter schools are expected to be operating in the state. What is your view on how and whether charters should expand in North Carolina?

Cecil: I strongly favor the charter school system. It needs specific testing to assure attainment of state education goals, which are measured by the public school grade tests.

Cooper: I oppose private school vouchers, but carefully selected public charter schools can bring innovations. But charter schools should not be the only educational institutions encouraged to experiment with educational innovations. Traditional schools should be encouraged to innovate, too. I will promote a statewide education policy that encourages creativity in the classroom, with personalized education plans, flipped classrooms and student governance, among others. We need to find new ways to evaluate student performance that improves outcomes and boosts performance.

McCrory: I supported lifting the cap on charter schools, but we must ensure charter schools meet the highest academic and transparency standards. Contrary to what the teachers union bosses and some in the educational establishment want us to believe, expanding school choice and charter schools will only help to strengthen the state’s education system as a whole, not undermine it.

The expansion of charter schools is helping to create a healthy competition among all schools and serves as a great laboratory of educational innovation for teachers, administrators and policy makers alike. While demanding transparency and high standards, we should and are learning from their successes and failures, and support the ideas that work. That’s why I recently signed legislation providing a fast-track review process for successful charter schools to be replicated in communities across the state – it’s just common sense.

Thanks to our efforts, over 280,000 students are benefiting from a school choice program, including charter schools, in North Carolina today.

Q: In the past decade, K-12 enrollment growth has outpaced UNC system enrollment growth. Do you support expansion in higher education enrollment to meet the increase in K-12 students moving through the pipeline, and how would you accomplish this?

Cecil: In general, I do not support expansion of the UNC system just to meet enrollment goals. We have passed bonds to provide quite a bit of teaching facility across the state, with the recent transportation bond package. UNC growth should be planned toward STEM or vocational goals, full utilization of existing facilities, and reduction of their administrative overhead.

Cooper: A good-paying job starts with a good education. That’s why we should be opening doors to higher education for more North Carolinians, when instead Governor McCrory is slamming them shut. Each time state policymakers cut funding for public universities, the quality of education suffers, tuition goes up, and the future of our workforce is jeopardized.

I will push to reverse this economically disastrous trend and rebalance our state’s priorities. We need to harness the full capacity of our university system by increasing state investment, finding ways to promote greater partnership between our businesses and university system campuses and providing greater and more flexible access to lifelong learning programs for individuals wanting to retool and upgrade their skills. We also need to reduce the cost of college to make it more accessible by increasing state investment in education and helping student loan borrowers pay off their loans.

I will work to ensure there are no more tax giveaways for big corporations until we renew our commitment to higher education through greater state investment.

McCrory: According to a study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 67 percent of jobs in North Carolina will require credentials beyond a high school diploma over the next several years; however, only 54 percent of North Carolina’s workforce is able to meet that need today. One of our top priorities has been to connect our education system to the needs of the marketplace to help close that skills gap. We have set the bold goal to have 67 percent of North Carolina’s working adults attain education and training beyond high school by 2025. To help meet this goal, we are also helping to connect high school students with career coaches from community colleges and creating two paths to a high school diploma – career ready or college ready.

N.C. Report Card

The News & Observer, the Charlotte Observer and McClatchy assessed the state of North Carolina as the Nov. 8 election approaches, with a particular focus on 20 measures of how the state is doing compared to previous years and compared to Georgia, Virginia and the rest of the nation. This week, The N&O looks at the state of North Carolina’s education.

Percent of population 25 and over with a bachelor's degree or higher

North Carolina has been gaining on Georgia and the national average in the past 25 years, but is still behind Virginia.

Source: US Census


Percent of population 25 and over with a high school diploma or higher

North Carolina has exceeded Georgia's rate and made solid gains on Virginia and the national average in the past 25 years.

Source: US Census


Average SAT scores

The Tar Heel State has slipped a bit in the past 10 years, but has approached the national average.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics


Average teacher salary

North Carolina, never among the nation's leaders, began to slip further behind about seven years ago and trails the national average by nearly $10,000. (In 2015 dollars)

Source: National Education Association


Per student spending

While not a measure of quality, spending can be an indicator of priorities. North Carolina remains faar behind the national average. (In 2015 dollars, Public schools K-12)

Source: National Education Association