2012 NC gubernatorial candidates on education policy
The three candidates for governor will spend much of the next three months talking about education, even though each of them acknowledges that North Carolina's chief executive is often more cheerleader than chairman of the board when it comes to shaping education policy.
Republican Pat McCrory has already published a whitepaper on education, while his Democratic opponent Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton says his detailed education policy proposal will roll out after the Democratic National Convention concludes in early September. Libertarian Barbara Howe, too, says she is working on detailed education policy proposal. Read the story
Mark Binker interviewed each of the three candidates for governor earlier this month. Click a topic below to expand and see their answers side by side.
During the last legislative session, lawmakers removed the 100-school cap on the number of charter schools allowed in North Carolina. However, charter school proponents had lobbied to remove certain restrictions on how quickly any one charter school may grow and what regulations they must follow.
Do you support removing restrictions on charter schools, such as how quickly they can grow?
Dalton said he did not support removing the 100-school cap on charters, saying he would have rather seen it raised to a particular number. He said that public schools, such as early college high schools, can carry out experiments and be innovative. And he said policy makers need to know more about charter schools before giving them more freedom. "I do think charter schools need to be far more transparent," Dalton said. For example, information about what each individual teacher makes should be public so the state can better understand where taxpayer money is going.
McCrory said lawmakers were right to remove the cap and said the process for approving new charters schools ought to be speedier, more transparent and predictable for schools and parents alike. He said the biggest problem he sees with charter schools is waiting lists for those who want to attend. He favors lifting restrictions on growth. "As long as the school is meeting its requirements, I think they ought to be allowed to grow at a pace they can sustain."
Howe said she strongly supports charter schools and thinks there never should have been a cap. And she said the state should remove many of the limits on how charters grow. "I see no purpose in the limits. I guess it's more an issue of bureaucrats being in control."
In 2012, House Republicans backed a bill to create a scholarship fund for low-income students who wanted to go to private schools. It would have been paid for by donations from businesses, which would receive a dollar-for-dollar credit against their tax liability. Supporters of the idea say it would help children get out of failing schools. Opponents say it would siphon away money from the public education system.
Do you support such a tax credit program?
Dalton characterized this plan a "voucher" program that takes money away from public schools. "I do not embrace private vouchers," Dalton said.
McCrory said he would prefer to focus on reforming public education. However, he would favor such a program if it was targeted to areas and students with the greatest need.
"Absolutely, I wholeheartedly agree with that concept," Howe said. She said parents should also get a tax credit when they send their children to private school.
Legislative leaders have directed local school districts to develop "performance pay" plans that would reward certain teachers. Criteria used include hard-to-staff subject areas, hard-to-staff schools and growth in student achievement.
Do you support keeping or expanding such pay-for-performance criteria?
Dalton said the state's first priority should be getting teacher salaries up to the national average. He said that merit pay may be worthwhile, but there are questions about what measures are used to give those bonuses. Some would argue that teams of teachers should be rewarded, he said. "Merit pay is something we should look at and perhaps embrace, but as we do it we should get all our teachers up to a floor standard of pay," he said.
McCrory said schools should pay more for those who teach in hard-to-staff subject areas such as a science and math. And he agrees with paying more to teachers whose students improve the most. "We should reward the best teachers. The best teachers should get paid more than the mediocre." While specific systems need to be developed, McCrory said, most parents, students and fellow teachers typically know who the "good teachers" are in any particular school.
"I'm going to have to study that issue more carefully. It does make a certain amount of sense that you reward good teachers for performance. How it works in a government-run school, I'm not sure," Howe said.
Who is in charge
While candidates for governor often campaign on education topics, governors themselves have little direct control over schools. They must work with and through an independently elected superintendent of public instruction, a state school board and the various boards governing community colleges and the university system. Legislators also play a large role in setting education policy.
Pictured at left is State Superintendent June Atkinson.
Can a governor, from either party, really control the state's education system?
Dalton said the governor should be able to get lawmakers and others to agree to good ideas, although he acknowledged that the state may need to restructure its education hierarchy. "Thought should be given to the appointment of the superintendent of education," he said.
"I do think there needs to be changes in our constitution. I do think the superintendent ... should be appointed by the governor," McCrory said. He said the governor should use the "bully pulpit" to call for change and demand education leaders in various systems work together.
"Whatever I encourage is certainly something I'm going to be the strongest cheerleader on, but I will have to work within the confines of the General Assembly," Howe said. She added, "The short answer is the governor can only use the bully pulpit. But in the end, it's going to come down to a lot of work with a lot of people, the Legislature and everyone else who has a hand in the system. I don't want one person in charge, not even me."
A large part of last year's legislative budget debate centered on whether lawmakers adequately funded public education. Although lawmakers increased state funding to education, overall funding for K-12 classrooms went down due to the loss of federal funds.
Do you think this year's budget sufficiently funded education?
While there are changes needed in education, Dalton said, GOP cuts were "too deep" this year. "I agree that you have to prioritize your money. But I also think if you look at the states that perform above us, you will also find that they fund education per pupil at a greater level than we do," he said.
McCrory said too much of the debate over education has been on funding. Pressed on the current year budget, McCrory said, "The Armageddon didn't occur as predicted, but we still have the same basic policies in place."
"I don't think money is the issue. The issue is delivery," Howe said. Allowing more choices, through charters and private school tax credits, would prompt all schools to improve, she said. "The per dollar spending isn't as big an issue."
Early Childhood Education
As with other areas of the budget, the General Assembly has struggled to fund early childhood education programs. A Wake County superior court judge took lawmakers to task for under-funding pre-kindergarten programs in the state.
Is what we pay for pre-K worth it? Should North Carolina expand access to the pre-K program?
Dalton said that data on the state's Smart Start program, which pays for pre-school and other services for young children, has proven successful in boosting academic scores. "I cannot help but think that More at Four ... is having an impact also." He favors expanding pre-K to more children, as prescribed in a court order.
"The concept of pre-K is proven," McCrory said. He said the pre-K curriculum and operations should be more closely tied to K-12 system. As to whether a cost should be imposed for pre-K, McCrory said he was undecided. "I haven't made a decision on that, but nothing is free. If one person is not paying for it, someone else is."
"What I'd really like to see is the tax burden lowered on federal and state taxes so that one parent could stay home with the kids. Most of us didn't have kids so we could turn them over to a stranger for most of their day," Howe said. Kindergarten, she added, is soon enough for most children to encounter full-time schooling.
High School Graduation Rate
North Carolina's high school graduation rate hit 80 percent for the first time this year.
Is that a hallmark of success or something to be worried about?
"We have seen a steady increase in our graduation rate at high school over the past 10 years. That's because we've been prioritizing and focusing," Dalton said. "We've got to do better ... I think that steady progression on the graduation rate shows we are making progress."
"The number has slightly improved, but still one out of every five kids aren't graduating," McCrory said. "That's a failure rate." He said the state had to guard against "dumbing down" standards to boost graduation rates.
Howe said that number is suspect because of how many kids need remedial math and English education when they reach community college. "I wonder whether that (graduation rate) number is real," she said.
North Carolina's constitution states that access to the state's university and community college system should, "as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense." However, tuition costs in both the UNC and community college systems have risen steadily in recent years.
How should the state try to limit rising tuition costs?
Dalton said the state should continue to push the idea of students getting the first two years of their degrees on a community college campus or as part of a high school early-college program. "That is one step we could take that could reduce student debt dramatically." He said he favors allowing community colleges to have an "expansive" mission.
McCrory said the problem isn't the support from the General Assembly. Rather, he said, increasing educational costs need to be brought under control. "There's been no auditing of why one sector of government has increased more quickly than all others," he said. McCrory has long talked about refocusing community colleges on technical and vocational training.
Howe said large capital costs in the university system are a concern and should be looked at as a place to cut spending. "Again, if we think about market forces, we have plenty of private colleges and we have the university system. We ought to be able to create competition amongst them and let parents choose," she said. Howe said students in the state university system may be facing increasing costs, but they're still not paying for the full cost of their education.
We frequently hear from educators who say they hope students will pursue learning throughout their lives, not just while they're in school.
If you could choose any course to go back and study, what would you want to learn more about?
"Modern civilization, because you learn a lot from history," Dalton said. "We're into a new technical age (like) we have never faced before. But that's true of all history. Every generation, every decade, every century has faced new challenges. How was that handled? ... I continue to learn from that today."
"I think we need to teach economics and accounting to more of our kids," McCrory said. "I've had to go through more of a self-taught process. I wish I would have had more of that in high school and college."
"I might have taken something along the lines of how stuff works, how a car engine works," Howe said. "I was (in school) before the time of computers. Learning that tangible stuff of how things actually work is something I would have been interested in."