Dalton's NC education plan looks to restore cuts

Posted October 3, 2012 4:13 p.m. EDT
Updated October 3, 2012 8:58 p.m. EDT

— Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton said Wednesday he would work to restore public education cuts, seek to raise teacher salaries to the national average and give more people the ability to save or get help to attend college if he's elected North Carolina's next governor.

In unveiling his education platform at a Wilmington news conference, the Democrat sought again to differentiate himself from Republican Pat McCrory by linking the former Charlotte mayor to the budget decisions of the Republican-led legislature. Dalton also is seeking to follow in the line of recent Democratic "education governors" and touted the plan's endorsement by former four-term Gov. Jim Hunt.

The 18-page "Great Jobs Grow From Great Schools" proposal emphasizes linking education to skills and curricula that will allow students to get high-demand jobs. He wants to expand early college high schools to all 100 counties and give in-state tuition to more veterans.

The platform also seeks to improve teacher training and expand the state's pre-kindergarten program. In a nod to exposing the youngest citizens to books, Dalton even wants to ensure every newborn goes home from the hospital with a local library card.

Teacher salaries would rise incrementally to the national average with Dalton's plan, but he didn't say how large an increase he'd propose with his first budget. Dalton's campaign said it would also take more than one year to restore cuts made by the GOP-controlled General Assembly, which the campaign calculates at $1.7 billion over the past two years.

"Cutting public education will only dig us deeper into an economic hole," Dalton said in a statement. "If elected, I will be the public schools governor North Carolina needs to ensure that we have a strong workforce well-prepared for the jobs of the future."

McCrory says that schools are adding to the state's economic woes by failing to prepare students for the workforce.

"I'm going to start as governor and say, 'You're going to work together as one team, and your one customer is the student and your one goal is to teach the student some skills to get a job,'" he said in a recent WRAL News interview.

The two candidates disagree on a lot of issues: McCrory wants more charter schools, Dalton does not; McCrory supports merit pay for teachers, Dalton wants to raise all teacher salaries.

The only issue they do agree on is that the state should consider making the superintendent of public instruction an appointee of the governor instead of an independently elected official.

Their biggest disagreement between Dalton and McCrory is over funding. State spending on schools has dropped by about $300 million since 2008, as lawmakers struggled to bridge big budget shortfalls, but enrollment keeps climbing.

"If you look right now, we're in the bottom tier – one of the bottom three or four states on per-pupil spending in K-12 education," Dalton said in a recent WRAL News interview. "That's not going to get you where you need to be in today's economy and in the future economy. Money does matter."

McCrory says there's too much talk about money and not enough about reform. He says schools need to be fixed first.

"We cannot afford to keep the status quo in education, and a lot of the requests being made right now are to pour more money into the existing system, which is resulting in an incredibly high dropout rate."

Dalton's campaign said Wednesday's plan would cost more than $600 million in the first year. Dalton says it wouldn't require raising sales taxes – an idea he supported during the Democratic primary but has since backed away from. Dalton said the sales tax proposal only applied to dealing with the current year's cuts, not future years.

A WRAL News poll released Tuesday found that 47 percent of likely voters across the state oppose the idea of raising taxes to generate more money for public schools. Meanwhile, 21 percent of those polled said they wouldn't mind a higher sales tax for education, while 8 percent said they would be willing to pay higher income taxes. Sixteen percent said the state could raise both sales and income taxes to fund schools.

Dalton's plan, along with a "job creation plan" he unveiled last month, would be paid in part through projected revenue growth this year, improved tax collection effort and eliminating a tax-avoidance method for multi-state companies, according to Dalton's campaign.

Dalton also would seek to cap a 2011 business tax break the legislature approved so it would apply to only smaller businesses.

McCrory's campaign said the scope of Dalton's plan and his earlier support for a sales tax increase shows he's intent on raising taxes further. Scaling back the business tax break also could be considered by some to be a tax increase.

Dalton "knows know other way to govern than raising taxes," McCrory spokesman Brian Nick said.

Dalton spokesman Schorr Johnson said voters should recognize that Dalton has "100 percent more details" in his education plan than McCrory has provided in his education platform, which left out how he'd pay for his initiatives.

McCrory's plan included a stronger focus upon vocational education and improving access for all students to online courses. Dalton has accused McCrory of supporting the Legislature's education cuts of the past two years and efforts by some Republicans to provide tax credits to students to attend private schools.

McCrory said in an interview last week with The Associated Press that he supports scholarships in narrow situations for students whose needs aren't being met by the public schools. When asked whether the state's education system is in a better position compared to before Republicans took over the legislature, McCrory replied: "Yes, because the state's more solvent than it was. It would be even less solvent if we (didn't) reduce spending."

Making Dalton's plans a reality would be challenging to carry out should he win and the legislature remains in Republican hands.

The North Carolina Association of Educators has endorsed Dalton, but Mark Jewell, the group's vice president, said they are listening carefully to both candidates.

"We know that our buildings are leaking, our enrollment is increasing, class size is busting, and we are just – we're really looking for clear specifics on how we're going to return North Carolina back to its first-class public education," Jewell said.


Dalton's education plan: http://bit.ly/QXGM7K