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Q&A with Sen. Mike Lee and Sen. Deanna Ballard

Sens. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, and Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, are co-chairs of both the Senate education and education appropriations committees, and as such, they have a lot of influence over education policy in North Carolina. EducationNC Senior Reporter Alex Granados sat down with them recently to talk about their interest in education, the big issues facing the state, and their vision for the future. The day he sat down with them was the same day that legislative leaders, along with Gov. Roy Cooper, announced a deal to reopen schools to in-person learning for all students in the state. Ballard was one of the Republican senators to speak at the press conference.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Granados: I just want to start generally by asking you about your interest in education. You’re on the education committee. You’re chairing it. I’ve heard you both, and you seem knowledgeable about education, so there must be an interest there. I’m curious where the interest came from.

Lee: My wife and I have four children. It really started when my 20-year-old was in kindergarten. When he went to kindergarten, we just kind of saw the beginning of a path, and education for me had not changed a lot since I was a kid or maybe when my mom was a kid, and it didn’t seem to have evolved like other areas. 

That was my beginning interest, but then as my children started to move through the grades, I became more interested because just as a parent and a consumer of traditional public education, I became really fascinated about how things work and didn’t work. So that’s really how it all started for me. I even ran for the Board of Education in New Hanover County a very long time ago. I lost that election. 

Ballard: My mom, she was in the Lincoln County school system for 26 years, so I grew up in the home of an educator. But my mom had an interesting experience — she was a school bus driver, teacher’s assistant, and then at the age of 50 went back and got her teaching degree. I would say I’ve spent a lot of time growing up in the school community. I mean we rode the bus, mom’s bus route. It was just a great educational experience in and of itself. Even just riding the bus and interacting with all the kids and you can see the different backgrounds and homes where they come from; seeing the different needs. And I’ll never forget, one time my mom had a parent that actually came up and knocked on the bus door and was asking for food for her kid as she was dropping or picking up the kid for school that day. 

For me, it’s just always been on the frontlines and seeing firsthand the importance of the school and the school community. In elementary school, we would stay after because mom was still finishing her work day, and we’d go around and help the teachers clean off the chalkboards or cut out whatever they needed for the bulletin boards or whatever really needed to get done, but we had so much fun. We’d be in the library, we’d run around school. We just took over. 

It was always a really fun experience. And a lot of my friendships I still have to this day. My close friends really developed in elementary school, so I would say that education has really been the center of my family and just the relationships I’ve built over time. 

But also, I worked at the federal Department of Education. This was back in 2002 for a couple years with Secretary Rod Paige. He was the first African-American Secretary of Education that we’ve had in the country. I was able to get some federal eyes and look at education through that lens as well. I just learned a lot from the many folks there and really just the vast world of education policy and everything that goes into that.

Granados: Can you talk a little bit about kind of the expertise and experience you bring to your interest in education and your role on the education committees, but also how that expertise or experience influences the way you see your role? And so, in particular with you (points to Ballard), how did your role with the federal Department of Education, how has that influenced the way you see education working at the state level?

Ballard: For starters, I would say state government and state education policy is a beast in and of itself, very different than the federal side of things. I have a strong appreciation for the amount of work that gets done at the state level. I feel a lot of satisfaction and immediate sort of impact and results, and the decisions and the direction of the policies that are driving out of the chamber and what we work on with DPI (Department of Public Instruction) and Superintendent Truitt (State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt) now, you see that happen a little bit faster. And you can feel the effects of that a little bit more immediately, as opposed to the federal level. 

Things I learned on the federal level was how some of the funding works, how everything falls down to the states, but also, I would say, I was very fortunate at the federal level to work with the secretary. I was exposed to schools and communities and different deliveries of instruction all across the country. For me, that has really shaped my thinking, because I had this very traditional sort of upbringing in the school community — mom schoolteacher, rural North Carolina, Lincoln County — but then I went to a school building in New York City that’s really like 12 stories on a block. And the grades are by floor levels, essentially. 

When I was at the Department of Education, I was all over the country, from California to New York to Ohio to Alaska. You’re on snowmobiles wandering to the villages to see how school really takes place and operates. I think it’s really afforded me just a wide perspective on possibilities of how to really get education or deliver education to our students in North Carolina, and that there’s more than one way to do that. And really what works for each family is going to be a little different across the board, so how do you tap into that so that every kid can really be successful? 

Lee: Well, it’s kind of twofold. I was on the Board of Transportation, and I was chair of the Port Authority, but when I came to the General Assembly, that really wasn’t where I wanted to go even though I had a good bit of expertise. And then after my second term being a co-chair of education, really cutting my teeth, and then going through the fellows program with The Hunt Institute, and now I’m on the board. 

But my real basic knowledge comes as a consumer. I grew up in Dunn, North Carolina. My father is from Taiwan. My mom was from New York, so we were kind of foreign all the way around when you go to Dunn, North Carolina in the mid ’70s. But with our children in New Hanover County, we’ve experienced almost all types of education. My oldest son, we’ve done year-round. We’ve done traditional public. My oldest went to the School of Science and Math. One of our children was in the NC Pre-K Program because he was at-risk for some developmental issues that he was having. I’ve been in that world and been in a community with special needs parents and children for quite some time. My one child went to an inner-city charter school in Wilmington, North Carolina. It was really an amazing experience for the time that he was there. So we’ve really kind of hit everything except for homeschool. I mean literally everything except for homeschool and then early college. We didn’t go that route other than the Pathways Program at community college with one of our children. 

They all learn so differently. It’s just unbelievable to me, and each of them has taken a different path and needed different things. And so for me, if that’s possible within the context of one family, what is it like for the population at large? And do we have enough options? And so really that is driving me. When I look at something, I look at it through the lens of, you know, not is that just a great program, or are they doing a great job, but is that a great option for certain children and then certain parents? You can’t get away from what’s going on in the family’s life. You can’t just look at the child, a lot of times. You have to make sure those options are flexible and  take into account everything that’s going on because it all impacts that child’s ability to learn and their love for learning. 

It’s kind of a bifurcated approach that I have. One is I do a lot of research. I really enjoy the policy, but then I’ve got this side my wife and I’ve really lived, and we’re still living in different ways.

Granados: It’s really interesting. There are two big things I’ve noticed in this job. I’ve noticed kind of the disconnect sometimes between the policy discussions and realities on the ground. And I feel like it’s the nature of policy discussion to just get so abstract so quickly. And then the other one is how education is very political to people until it’s their kid and they’re trying to figure out what to do. And whatever their political beliefs were about education kind of change to fit whatever they need to do with their kid. So you can have someone who’s a very liberal anti-school choice person, but then if they’re in a district where they don’t like the school and the charter is the option, they’ll do it. So I really like education because it puts political ideology to the test. 

Ballard: I’ve always been very practical like: what are the steps in order to really see something from A to B, or A to Z? How do we get this done? And a lot of that’s conditioned from my federal background, because you had to learn how to navigate through the channels pretty quickly and swiftly in order to really have a deliverable. So it is funny here for me. We have ideas. We brainstorm. We talk about things, but then I’m always immediately trying to go to: but what’s this really going to look like when I try to implement this and execute this? I’m asking the questions, asking those hard questions, and trying to think through that. But also, I don’t have kids in the school system. I don’t have kids. I’m not married. 

Lee: I can let you borrow some. I have a few. 

Ballard: Some people have said I’ve got 49 of them. For me, I really do rely heavily on the boots on the ground. And because I do feel like that’s that real touch and the real pulse. I mean, you have to weigh that with what you’re working on, too, and understanding everybody’s different, there’s different perspectives, too, from the ground, but you’re really threading the needle there on how this can just be reasonable and manageable at that level.

Lee: And it’s really challenging, too, on the policy level sometimes because so many policy folks view education as linear. I mean it’s all birth through 16 or pre-K through this and a lot of times education is not linear just as a general matter. And then when you talk about subject matters, it’s certainly not linear. Whether it’s math and science or language arts. It’s not this thing that kids head down this path and are equal in all areas. 

From a policy perspective, it gets kind of muddy because you’ve got to, for folks who have always thought about education in the way that we’ve always had it in that paradigm, it gets really challenging. 

Granados: Moving to the policy side, what are some of the perennial education issues that you all see affecting North Carolina?

Lee: Educator recruitment, retention. 

Ballard: School calendars. 

Lee: Flexibility, funding. And then there are the challenges and then there are the issues.

Granados: Elaborate on that. 

Lee: There are some very real challenges that we have, and sometimes those challenges are not articulated in the way to find solutions. A lot of times, challenges become issues that become political. And so, I’ll give you a perfect example: Student funding. You will hear the statistic that we’re at the bottom of the nation in per-capita student funding. You’ll hear that all the time. But what you won’t hear is that North Carolina is in the top 10 for state funding of education, and where we have the breakdown is on the local level in many respects. And not that the local level is not trying. There are lots of areas in North Carolina that can’t raise their tax rate high enough because the assessed values aren’t going to get there. You’ve got issues where you have declining enrollment in so many of our counties. Education is complicated. So to try and break it down in a soundbite makes it difficult. We have these challenges that sometimes get caught up in what I would call issues that become political and it makes it harder to work together sometimes to accomplish that. I don’t mean work together in the Senate, because I think Democrats and Republicans work very well together in the Senate. So I don’t think that occurs with our colleagues in the Senate. But I do think it occurs, you know, outside of the body, and creates headwind sometimes.

Ballard: I pretty much agree with what he shared. I’m trying to think if there are other issues. Even thinking in the higher ed space. Sometimes we get so consumed with K-12 that we forget we have the higher ed space on our side. 

Granados: Right. It’s the Senate committee on education and higher education. 

Ballard: Right, so we have community colleges, the UNC system, the independents, and some of the issues, like even the teacher recruitment pipeline, feeds into that. What we do at K-12 is really reflected also in schools of education and what we’re trying to get done there. College affordability, community colleges are always itching to be a little bit more on a parity level of funding with UNC (system). I think that’s a perennial issue that we’re still trying to figure out how to navigate a little bit more.

Lee: I think there’s a perennial problem that we don’t talk about as much. I think we do a pretty good job because of our structure in the Senate, so when we’re thinking about pre-K, we’re thinking about an education system, so we’re seeing how pre-K or K-5 impacts higher ed and workforce. So when we get together, we’re talking about the education system. Certainly there are buckets within policy, but we’re not talking about pre-K, K-5, middle, high, community college. And so, the concept of the education system sometimes is not always articulated well. 

When I first was elected — and none of these people are still there, so I can say this — the chancellor of UNC-W, the superintendent of our K-12, and the president of our community college had never gotten together. So I call and asked for a meeting just to get together and talk about the education system in New Hanover County. And so that’s what at first really dawned on me. How kind of bifurcated everything is. That to me is a perennial challenge, but it is not always articulated.

Ballard: Workforce development would be another perennial issue in North Carolina. Whether that’s community colleges or your UNC system, your CTE (Career Technical Education) and the vocational work that we’re trying to do through DPI. It’s just a continual issue. Senator Lee and I’ve talked about this a lot too, but it’s very piecemealed across different agencies as well. So if you want to talk about funding, the buckets are a piecemealed scenario too. I think anything that makes things harder to really streamline and clean up and create cohesion and alignment … it’s just challenging.

Granados: So, moving to current issues, what do you think are some of the most important current issues, beyond the agreement to reopen schools that took place today?

Lee: Because we’re in a COVID world, perennial issues have taken on even a larger sense of importance. Reading proficiency, for example. It was already not doing well, and now we’re at 75% of children are not reading proficiently directly related to COVID, so you can kind of go down the list of the perennial issues and see how COVID has exacerbated those in many respects. 

Those are some of the things that we’re going to be looking at tackling and were already looking at. Now with some of these new developments, these issues have become, you know, more significant than ever before.

Ballard: Like early literacy. We know that’s been something that Senator Berger (Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham) has been working on the entire time, especially in the last 10 years when Republicans have taken over, but it continues to be just at the heart of his work and what he’s trying to accomplish and to get done, and so continuing trying to move the needle in that area and working with DPI. 

DPI has gone through different leadership over the course of the last decade, which has made things challenging as far as implementation, as well as just leadership in the executive branch. So, you’ll see we’re going to continue to work through efforts in that area as well but, again, we’ve done so with Senate Democrats along the way, and we’ll continue to be working with them on that as well as our House colleagues, too. Summer learning, we know that the House has a bill that has come over, so you’ll see the Senate reviewing and considering that or if there’s other components or ideas we have to maybe enhance what’s there, just working through that and sifting through that as well.

Education can be a space where you have to get things done incrementally, so that’s why you’ll see things probably year after year being touched on and worked on along the way.

Granados: And you’ve kind of answered some of my next question, but if you have anything to expound on … your goals for this current long session with regards to education.

Ballard: From my perspective, there has been a lot of money that has been distributed — whether it’s at the higher ed level, whether it’s been direct from the feds to the institutions, whether it’s gone through the state, whether it’s gone to DPI or down to the districts — I think it’s really being smart about the money flow and the sources and the streams of money that are out there and understanding how they’re either playing into each other, how they’re being spent effectively so that when we are addressing our state budget needs that we’re being reasonable and smart. 

That is an ongoing long-term challenge for this session because we’re still clearly probably going to see another package come down from the feds as we figure out our own state budget asks, too. So, that’s something you’ll see we’ll always try to be mindful of and continue to keep an eye on. And especially I would say this session with the dollars that have come in in the last year and how that has affected the overall budget itself. 

Education is 58.8% of the state budget when you include the higher ed as well. There continue to be strong investments there from the state, which I think we’ll continue to do, but we also want to be smart about those investments knowing that we have all the federal funding that’s coming through as well. 

We’re working with Senate Democrats as well on various topics and issues. So I think you’ll see perhaps more compromise bills. It takes a lot of work to get a lot of work done on the front end, so timing is not always your friend, but we’ve been trying to do that so much even in this first month. People would say that we’ve really started this session at 100 miles an hour. We just came out of the gate with so much heavy lifting. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes. A lot of conversations. A lot of discussions. If you’ve kept up with some of our ed committee meetings you’ve heard the priorities from the agencies, so you’ll see us taking keen interest in some of those.

Lee: We’re really working on some of those challenges before they become an issue so that we can get real solid bipartisan policy. COVID has kind of brought to light a lot of financial issues, so obviously we’re going to be working on all those things. But then there are other issues. It’s not talked about a lot, but the special needs world. There’s a whole population of children who were already in a situation that may not have been ideal, and then taking it into the COVID world, not just children but families. I’m hopeful that over the next biennium — I’m not going to say just the session — that we’ll be looking for that education system, birth to workforce, with some of our exceptional communities, because I think that’s something that will really need to be focused on, not just for those individuals and families but also for workforce development. And when I was here previously, I worked with Representative Bradford (Rep. John Bradford, R-Mecklenburg) and we did a joint task force really looking at the workforce side, because when those special needs students come out of the K-12 system, they pretty much drop off a cliff. Usually they’re on Social Security, and then there’s really nothing else there, and some of the programs are just not aligned in a way with the funding to really make a difference. And so, I’m hopeful that we’ll see some changes, not only within the K-12 world but also moving into workforce.

Granados: Everything that’s happened this past year, and in particular our experience of remote learning and kind of seeing that remote education can happen — do you think that anything that has happened or that we’ve experienced this year is going to affect the way we do education in North Carolina long-term? 

Ballard: March 15 happened. I was on a call with the State Board of Education — a few members, Chairman Davis, Vice Chairman Duncan, I believe — and DPI, Craig Horn (Former Rep., Craig Horn, R-Union), John Fraley (Former Rep. John Fraley, R-Iredell) that weekend, and I’ll never forget telling them that I thought we were more poised than ever to really change the culture of education in North Carolina. I mean it was like you were kind of forced into it at the time. 

I do think there is a change in the landscape of how we deliver education. To what extent and how much, that remains to be seen. I think it has impacted it in unique ways. I think districts have learned a ton, even about the capacity they have to be more resourceful and to pivot and to think outside the box, but also while still meeting some of the needs of their community. But it’s not across the board. The problem is, it’s not consistent across district to district either. So, I just think you’ll see it as a part of the education landscape moving forward. Again, how that really looks at the end of the day, I’m not sure. And we have new leadership at DPI. That really changes things, too. So, a lot of things were happening all at once last year. 

Lee: I think it absolutely changes. Just like the rest of the world — whether it’s the way business is changing, the way people operate in their own homes has changed. I think we are going to see there are opportunities to change a system that hasn’t really changed much since my mother was in school. My son is in the seventh grade. And he’s one of those kids that that has spent the last five years with disruptions from school, whether it was the three weeks for (Hurricane) Florence or some of the other named storms that came through. You can’t change a lot during the storm because you’re just trying to dig out, you’re just trying to get out of the emergency. And I think that’s somewhat of where we are right now. We are all just kind of coming out. 

Ballard: I think that brings up a good point. I think the more social and emotional effects and impact of what has happened over the last year is going to be something that will continue to reveal itself over time, which therefore does change the system or the state of education in the school community to a degree because I do think kids are changed by it, whether they even realize it or not.

Lee: My son had a health issue in December. Every day, you hear death rates. All the time. You hear about people getting sick, people going to the hospital. So when he got sick and he was having a hard time — it was a respiratory issue — he thought he was going to die. This is just anecdotal in my home. 

If you think about a 14-year-old thinking about that and then you start to extrapolate to all the other children who are even younger than he is and how they’ve been bombarded day after day with death statistics, I can’t imagine how it has impacted them as children. So, as Senator Ballard said, that’s something that we’ll start to begin to see, but I don’t know that everyone’s really kind of focused on that. And because as adults we’ve gotten so immune to the news, and children who typically aren’t watching the news as much hear it all the time because parents have it on. It’s on the radio, it’s on the television, it’s on the internet, it’s just everywhere. That’ll be something that I think we’ll be dealing with for years to come.

Granados: Before COVID hit, it seemed like last year was going to be the year of Leandro. The WestEd plan came out, and it seemed like there was going to start to be movement or pressure to do something with that. And then it kind of fell off the radar as the pandemic happened. Now people are starting to talk about it again. There’s a comprehensive plan due to the court (the plan dropped recently). 

I’m curious about what you all think about Leandro, in particular the WestEd report and the role of the legislature, particularly when some people think that the judge is going to try to order the legislature to spend the money that’s recommended in the WestEd report. 

Ballard: This has been something that we really inherited. This has been going on for 15 years, before Republicans took over in 2011. We’re already on track to outspend what WestEd’s report was even suggesting or recommending at this point, and I would even say that there have been recommendations in the report that we’ve already put into statute and put into law, and I think sometimes folks forget those portions. An example or two would be: I think that the report had recommended that advanced teaching roles be permanent, which we did in 2020. It asked for $40 million to increase the instructional support allotment, which we did $43 million. This was in last year as well. It asked for more diversity with the Teaching Fellows, which we also had already implemented. So there have been efforts along the way already towards what the WestEd recommendations have been reporting and suggesting. 

Lee: The recommendation for reform of school finance, you know, how we fund schools. I was on a joint legislative task force looking at how we fund schools before WestEd even came out. And that’s something that I’m very interested in continuing with over the next few years, really digging in, taking what we learned in that joint legislative effort. We’re really looking at taking a hard look at that, not because of the WestEd report, again it’s something we’d done before. I think there’s a PED (Legislative Program Evaluation Division) report that talked about how the system is very broken. And I think everyone agreed it was broken but nobody really had a solution. What we learned in that process is that when we asked, most folks didn’t really have solutions and stakeholders in the state really had not gone through that process of formulating what they thought a solution was. That’s something I’ll be working on over the next biennium.

Granados: Is there anything that you  want to talk about that I haven’t asked about?

Ballard: I think you had a question about the future. Like how will education look in 10 years …

Granados: Oh, yes. 

Ballard: I think that’s important. I just like to think about moving forward. We’ve had a hard and a challenging, difficult year, and I think today our efforts were really trying to just turn the tide and change the narrative of what we need to do moving forward. I am looking forward and we’ve looked forward in terms of what work we want to do together this session, but even years and years down the road and what we’re trying to lay groundwork for others to come alongside and continue, but I’m also on the myFutureNC Board. So for me, it’s an important group. It’s an important attainment goal that we want to hit and that we want to reach towards. I’m eager to be working with those individuals but also here in the legislature really trying to put in everything that needs to be in place in order to make that happen and hit the mark. Reaching that 2 million with postsecondary degrees or workforce credentials or credentials of value in the next 10 years is going to be key and just really critical. I would say that that’s something for me that I really could try to dial into, and that means I’m bringing together all sectors. Which I love, I love the work where I can align what DPI is doing with community colleges, or DPI and UNC, or UNC and CCs (community colleges), however all entities can really sort of come together at the table I’m going to be a part of. Let’s drive in the same, let’s roll in the same direction. But really looking at the funding in terms of funding students and not systems. So, what does that really look like in North Carolina? There’s so much opportunity in North Carolina right now. I just want to be sure we’re all able to see that and then to really harness that, and maximize it, with the leadership we have in place but also, with the consumers in the education sector. Really empowering the public schools, not undermining them, but really helping them understand that you have what you need in order to really keep driving forward. 

Lee: For me, funding is a big issue, and looking at how we’re doing so there’s transparency, and you can never find out if there’s adequacy unless you have transparency. I’ll never forget, I became an education chair going into my second term, and I looked at someone else and I said, ‘You know, they asked me a question about ed policy, and I said I’m not an expert on ed policy yet.’ And he said, ‘You need to be.’ And that stuck with me because, as I learned more about policy, I realized that legislators need to be experts at educational policy but we’re not experts at education. 

I ask a lot of people, if you could wave your magic wand, what would you do? The renewal school district kind of gave us an opportunity to look at what would the education experts do with full flexibility? And was it truly something that was necessary to move education forward? Fast forward however many years it’s been, three years since they’ve been doing that, a lot of things that they’re doing, they could have already done. It was really about thinking about things differently and not necessarily having the flexibility to spend the money differently. But they thought because they had the flexibility to spend the money differently then they started thinking differently. And so they have some incredibly innovative things that they’re doing that they thought of not because the funding flexibility was there, because they could already do it, but because of how they approached things, and it really gave the professionals the bandwidth or flexibility to really be professionals, and I don’t think a lot of teachers and educators would say they’ve had that opportunity. 

Learning from the education experts to inform us as education policymakers so that what we do for a living here can assist those who are the education experts in doing what they know how to do. That’s where that kind of keeps me doing this. Because otherwise, it’d be really hard. But when you see what can happen in the future, it really gives you the energy to just keep climbing ahead.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.