Op-Ed

Weakening public education huge risk to NC business climate

“We need to make funding our schools a priority, make existing teachers feel valued and make teaching a desirable profession for new college graduates.”
“We need to make funding our schools a priority, make existing teachers feel valued and make teaching a desirable profession for new college graduates.” rwillett@newsobserver.com

For many years, public education was a bipartisan priority in North Carolina. Members of both parties saw value in our K-12 public schools, the community college system and the UNC system. North Carolina public policy has reflected that point of view. Over the past few years, we’ve seen a major change. As business leaders, we’re concerned.

Weakening public education creates huge risks to the business climate in North Carolina. Our company started in Chapel Hill more than 30 years ago, and with more than 90 percent of our employees based in the state, our business model requires that we attract and retain the best and brightest. For years, we’ve been able to rely on local universities to provide top-notch employees. While we do recruit from out of state, we prefer to hire locally.

As native North Carolinians, we benefited from North Carolina public schools from kindergarten through graduate school. We’re grateful for the state’s investment in us, and we’re happy to pay back that investment by paying taxes and by providing good high-paying jobs. Ideally, this becomes a virtuous cycle – local children receive a great education, become successful adults and give back to the state. For this to happen, the state has to keep up its side of the bargain – providing the children of North Carolina with a quality education.

Though we prefer local hires, some specialized positions require a national search for talent. People considering relocating from out of state want to come to a progressive place with good schools at the K-12 and university level. North Carolina’s appearances over the past year in the national media certainly don’t paint that picture.

Underfunding the university system means we aren’t attracting and retaining top faculty needed to maintain high-quality degree programs, particularly in technical fields where private sector employment opportunities are plentiful. University faculty members have gone years without raises while significant tuition increases make our public universities less accessible to some and less desirable to others.

To get back on track, we need to make funding our schools a priority, make existing teachers feel valued and make teaching a desirable profession for new college graduates. Compensation for teachers needs to be competitive with teachers in other states and with professions requiring similar education and expertise. Public discourse by our elected representatives should reflect a level of respect for the teaching profession that has been missing recently. The same applies for university faculty.

Reasonable tax rates are important, but having the lowest tax rate at the expense of our schools is not. On North Carolina’s current path, businesses that need a highly educated workforce will lose top talent to other states. And when they go, the jobs they provide – high paying, with good benefits and lots of stability – will go with them.

As North Carolina-educated business leaders and residents of this state, we strongly urge our government officials to change course and regain North Carolina’s status as a leader in public education. Support our schools, support our community colleges and support our universities.

Laura Helms Reece, Dr.P.H., and Russ Helms, Ph.D., are CEOS of Rho, a contract research organization in Chapel Hill.

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