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For ‘education voters,’ a consequential election

Back in September, I sought to frame the gubernatorial election by exploring the question, “What does it take to serve as an ‘education governor’ in the 21st Century?” Now, in the pell-mell rush to the Nov. 8 finale, it’s a moment to assess the campaign as it would look to an “education voter.”

Through that lens, the contest between Republican Pat McCrory and Democrat Roy Cooper appears highly consequential, with voters having a choice between candidates with distinct differences on policy decisions that will influence North Carolina’s schools for a decade or more. And yet, the campaign does not appear especially satisfying or successful in producing a debate as consequential as the election itself.

Why not? Mostly because education got overwhelmed by other political factors: the incendiary candidacy of Donald Trump, the hurricane rains that flooded much of the East, anxieties lingering from the Great Recession, and, especially, the cultural clash and economic fallout from the enactment of the state law, House Bill 2, that prevents local governments from expanding protections for gay and transgender persons.

Of course, “education voters’’ should consider these issues and more, as well as assess the leadership capacity of the candidates. Single-issue voting is too simplistic and too risky in choosing public officials expected to govern with integrity and to decide an array of complex policy questions.

Still, education is so central to the life prospects of North Carolina’s young people—and to the state’s reputational brand and its economic development—that it ought to occupy more campaign “space’’ than it received in 2016, with only a question or two in the televised debates, no major speeches, and TV commercials featuring contested data charts.

Much of the McCrory-Cooper debate involved back-and-forth over the scope of teacher raises and where the state ranks in teacher pay. Both candidates have said enough to assure that the 2017 agenda will include teacher pay in some form, at some to-be-determined level. Beyond that, however, “education voters’’ have to assess the candidates and their tendencies toward education.

As the incumbent, McCrory has run on the record of his administration and the Republican-majority legislature in redirecting state education policy to emphasize alternatives to basic public schools, to give public schools A-through-F grades, and to impose a third-grade reading mandate. During the campaign, the governor appeared with GOP Vice Presidential nominee Mike Pence at a rally for home-schoolers, and declared, “The more choice we give parents and their children, the better education will be for everyone.”

As the challenger, Cooper has focused on critiquing what he sees as the shortcomings of the Republican agenda. He explicitly opposes tax-financed vouchers for students to attend private schools. And he says he would “fix’’—meaning reverse—what he sees as inadequate investment in public schools.

In reality, however, the campaign has not reached the level at which either candidate would come away with a strong mandate to adopt an extensive education plan. Both would have to spend time and political energy, post-election, to build public will for hard decisions on education budgeting and raising revenue for strong initiatives, if that’s what they would want to do.

As the campaign neared its close, two developments arose that would help “education voters’’ cut through the clashing data that the campaigns hurl at their opponents:

  • The Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released an update of its widely used state-by-state analysis of public investment in K-12 schools. It’s a liberal research organization that assembles credible data. Its charts show that total state spending per student, inflation-adjusted, in North Carolina declined by 14 percent from 2008 to 2014—and that the state’s “formula funding’’ per student, inflation-adjusted, declined near 10 percent from 2008 to now. The upshot: Through both Democratic and Republican administrations, North Carolina still has not returned to pre-recession levels of public school support.
  • The Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State University has opened pre-registration for its 2017 forum, “Kidonomics: The Economics of Early Childhood Investment.” In its compilation of education data, the business-supported BEST-NC reports that the state’s Pre-K program services 21 percent of the eligible population of 4-year-olds—down from 25 percent in 2009-10—and it has a waiting list of more than 7,300. The upshot: The data point to a state that is running in place, rather than sprinting ahead, in preparing children to thrive in school.

Even in the absence of a white-hot debate on these two bullet-points, an “education voter’’ would take a close look at Cooper and McCrory and try to detect which has the stronger tendency to move the needle in Pre-K and public investment in public education.

Ferrel Guillory
Ferrel Guillory serves on the board of directors of EducationNC and is professor of the practice emeritus at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.