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Education issues shape 2016 North Carolina elections

In preparation for a project on North Carolina’s priorities, the nonpartisan N.C. Center for Public Policy Research requested that the Elon University Poll ask North Carolinians, “What is the most important issue facing the state of North Carolina?”

Shortly before the presidential primary last month, the Elon University Poll surveyed North Carolina voters, and of the 1,530 likely voters who responded, nearly three out of 10 cited “education.”

Education, in fact, led the list of issues offered in answer to that open-ended question. Next came “jobs/employment/wages,’’ cited by 289 voters (19 percent), followed by the “economy,’’ picked by 121 (8 percent). Together the jobs and economy respondents add up to 408 voters, fewer than the 448 voters (29 percent) who cited education.

An open-ended question in a statewide telephone poll gives only a broad indication, not a substantive, nuanced discussion, of issues on voters’ minds. Still, the Elon poll-takers came up with findings that serve as context for the session of the General Assembly to open later this month and for the statewide campaigns, already in gear, for the November general elections.

The Elon poll results showed Democratic voters (32 percent) more likely to cite education as the most important issue than Republicans (22 percent). Of independents, 32 percent put education at the top. By contrast, Republican voters (32 percent) named economic issues as the most important, more than Democrats (22 percent) and independents (27 percent).

As best they could, the Elon poll-takers also captured comments. I’ve scanned those comments, and can tell you that a goodly number of respondents who cited education as the top issue specifically mentioned teacher pay.

The Elon poll took place well before the state became consumed in a debate over the law — enacted by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Pat McCrory — that would require people to use only public bathrooms designated for their gender at birth. The law also puts a limit on local non-discrimination ordinances and on the ability of workers to sue in state court over discrimination. The law has emerged as an intense election-year issue not envisioned when the February poll was designed.

For its part, public education is an enduring issue, year after year, campaign after campaign. A central function of government and funded by taxpayers, public education is inevitably linked to the pull-and-tug of politics in democratic decision-making.

The legislature appears poised to enact an election-year pay raise for teachers. At issue are how much and how distributed.

Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson, a Democrat seeking re-election, has called for a 10 percent across-the-board pay raise. McCrory, a Republican seeking re-election, has proposed a 5 percent average pay increase for teachers, along with an average 3.5 percent bonus for veteran teachers.

In outlining his priorities, the governor did not specify across-the-board raises or bonuses. Both the governor and Republican legislators have argued that they have raised “average’’ pay while designing pay packages that give some teachers – until now, targeting early-career teachers  — higher raises than others.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Roy Cooper, the Democratic nominee for governor, has not proposed a specific pay raise for the 2016 legislative session, but he has pointed out that North Carolina teacher pay fell more than $9,500 below the national average in 2014-15. Ultimately, the Republican-majority General Assembly will define the terms of a pay raise, but whatever lawmakers decide will become central to the McCrory-Cooper contest.

Even before he won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in March, Cooper received the endorsement of the North Carolina Association of Educators, the principal teachers’ advocacy organization. Shortly after McCrory issued his education-budget priorities, the NCAE rebuffed the governor for having “no long-range plan to elevate public school educators to the head of the class.”

Since Republicans won control of the state House and Senate six years ago, GOP lawmakers and the NCAE have engaged in a running series of legal and political skirmishes. Republicans sought to remove “career status’’ employment protections for teachers, and they attempted to end payroll check-off for NCAE dues. The NCAE went to court to forestall both efforts. The NCAE also challenged Republican-sponsored state financial assistance for students in private schools, a voucher system upheld by the state Supreme Court. Undoubtedly, the way Republicans deal with pay and other teacher-related issues is influenced to a significant extent by their partisan instincts to prevail over the NCAE alliance with Democrats.

Aside from the GOP-NCAE sparring, voters have heard the stories of teachers leaving the profession, and some leaving the state to teach. Voters have also heard the news of North Carolina’s low rankings among the states in teacher pay and other measures of education policy. The sight of teachers in red t-shirts assembling at the legislative building has left an imprint. The results of the Elon University Poll suggest that the push-back of teachers and their allies has had an effect on public opinion and the 2016 politics of education.

Here’s is a link to the Elon University Poll, which provides extensive explanation of its methodology.

Editor’s Note: Ferrel Guillory is a board member of the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.

Ferrel Guillory

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