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Education events demonstrate classic North Carolina

Three events on three consecutive days offered a classic display of traditional North Carolina ways and means in public affairs. A spotlight shown on education. Public and private sector leaders hitched up together. And they called for the state to do better in moving young people through schooling and into jobs.

On Monday, the Public School Forum of North Carolina issued its annual report showing a widening over two decades of the gap in education funding between the highest and lowest spending counties. While state government provides most public school funding, higher-wealth counties can afford more robust supplements to teacher pay and school construction than lower-wealth rural counties.

On Tuesday, Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson presided over an “Innovation and Leadership Dinner’’ at which he outlined his agenda and goals for 2030. Among other initiatives, he announced the formation of a new entity called “Teach NC’’ to develop a teacher-recruitment initiative.

On Wednesday, the myFutureNC commission assembled its members and policy makers in the N.C. State University student union for the release of its “call to action final report.” After gathering data and holding “listening sessions’’ across the state, the commission called for increasing the number of North Carolinians, age 25-44, with post-high school job-credentials or academic-degrees from 1.3 million today to 2 million in 2030.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper showed up to endorse the myFutureNC goal, as did Republican House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger. So did UNC interim President Bill Roper and Community Colleges President Peter Hans.

BB&T CEO Kelly King gave the keynote address at Johnson’s dinner. Dale Jenkins, CEO of Medical Mutual Holdings, presided at the myFutureNC event, and Andrea Smith, CAO of Bank of America also co-chaired the commission. Corporations and philanthropies provided funding for all three activities. (Note: Two nonprofits with which I am associated — EdNC and MDC — had roles in the myFutureNC process.)

The three events surely add up to a good week for education. It’s especially so now that a responsible commission offers an aspirational and measurable goal in the hopes of driving progress — and garners expressions of support across party lines as well as across public and private sectors.

Still, as the myFutureNC report itself says, “the Call to Action is not yet a fully-executable plan… (and) will require greater specificity about several different components, including responsible leadership and supporting actors…” In that spirit, here are a few observations for the sake of perspective:

Leadership – The myFutureNC commission was started by Margaret Spellings, when she was UNC President. What happens now that she’s departed? The three events did not erase the differences on education policy within the partisan divide in state government. Success or failure in reaching 2030 goals will come after the terms of most current officeholders — unless the 38-year-old Johnson plans a long tenure as superintendent of public instruction.

Financing – Hardly a word was heard about how much it would cost and where the money would come from to close disparities and propel preK-12 schools, community colleges, and universities to reach the 2030 goals. At the myFutureNC event, the governor raised the topic in only one sentence. “We need to protect our tax base,’’ he said, as yet another round of income tax cuts went into effect for 2019.

Jobs – Jenkins said that North Carolina faces a “marketing and communication problem’’ in delivering the message that more well-paying jobs will require education beyond high school. And indeed, teachers and guidance counselors, as well as parents, would welcome credible information on jobs.

“Business in North Carolina is booming,’’ said Berger at a time when the state’s unemployment rate has fallen to 3.6 percent. So why then are businesses saying they can’t find enough skilled labor? In a near-full-employment economy, shouldn’t wages rise to attract required workers — just as higher pay would attract more people to teaching? All in all, policymakers as well as the public need a more in-depth and nuanced data on and understanding of the modern job market.

In keeping with decades-long custom, the argument for educational advancement was framed almost exclusively in terms of the economy and jobs. To cite only one example, then-Gov. Jim Hunt appointed a 50-member Commission on Education for Economic Growth in 1983. At the myFutureNC event this week, no one spoke up for education to produce discerning citizens and to sustain a vital democracy.

But if it takes a strong argument linking education and the economy to move more young people through a better funded, better functioning pipeline of schools, colleges, and universities, let’s go with that classic North Carolina way of moving forward.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.