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Little time for education at gubernatorial debate

At the end, Chuck Todd of NBC News pronounced the Cooper-McCrory debate “civil.” And surely it stayed within the bounds of conventional American political debate – in contrast to the bitter personal invective of the presidential spectacle two days earlier.

Still, Roy Cooper and Pat McCrory engaged in a contentious, fast-paced back-and-forth as they responded to Todd’s questions. The gubernatorial debate reinforced for North Carolina voters that they will choose between a Democrat and a Republican with sharp differences on issues, in personal style, and in approach to governing.

And yet, Tuesday’s televised event did nothing to advance the great debate on education in the state. A format that permits candidates to talk only in 30-, 60-, and 90-second increments does not lend itself to a genuine exploration of candidates’ knowledge and vision. News media stories on the debate barely mentioned education, and reported that the candidates mostly adhered to their standard talking points; indeed, there was no time allowed to push them to say much else.

The candidates got only one question on education – about teacher pay. It’s a flash-point issue, to be sure, but it’s not the be-all-and-end-all of education policy. Surveys regularly rank education at or near the top of citizen priorities, but this debate left out standards, testing, charters, private-school vouchers, the looming quality-teacher shortage, school grades, and resegregation.

The teacher-pay debate devolved, as it has throughout the campaign, into an argument over statistics. McCrory, the Republican seeking a second term, argues that he and the GOP-majority legislature have raised teacher pay enough to jump North Carolina from 48 to 41 in the ranking of states – and promised to go higher. Cooper, the attorney general seeking the state’s highest office, points out that North Carolina rose to the national average in teacher pay when he was a leading Democratic state senator in the 1990s – and promises to reach for that goal again.

How to make sense of their competing claims? Consider two words: Great Recession.

To show that his administration has fostered progress in the economy and in education, McCrory uses as his baseline the 2008-09 recession that hit North Carolina hard, ravaging the old textile and furniture industries. As a result of the economic downturn, unemployment rose and state revenues fell.

At times during the debate, McCrory appeared to campaign as much against former Democratic Governors Mike Easley and Bev Perdue as against Cooper, his current opponent. McCrory did not, however, mention former Gov. Jim Hunt.

While McCrory tried to associate his Democratic opponent with Easley and Perdue, Cooper claimed a share of the credit for a series of substantial teacher pay raises in the 1990s, when he served as state Senate Democratic majority leader. During a period of economic growth that boosted state revenues, Hunt set reaching the national teacher-pay average as a high priority for his final term. In addition to the teacher-pay surge, Hunt also established the early-childhood SmartStart program.

In his two terms, Easley had to contend with the shallow recession of 2000-01, and he got the legislature to sustain education funding through a one-cent sales tax increase and the lottery. Easley launched More at Four, which set up kindergartens for at-risk four-year-olds, and Earn and Learn as one of his initiatives to blend high schools with community colleges.

Perdue’s efforts to sustain education initiatives fell victim to the Great Recession. To keep the state within the balanced budget mandate, Perdue and the legislature cut spending, with teachers and state employees going without pay raises for several years.

Indeed, whoever was running state government – Democrats or Republicans – would have faced such burdensome decision-making. McCrory, who’s now in office in a recovery, says he’s doing better than Perdue, who was in office in a super-bad recession.

But the 2016 campaign shouldn’t be only a statistical debate over the past but also a fight for the future. The fast-paced, short-answer debate Tuesday, thus, became a missed opportunity to draw out the gubernatorial candidates on their vision for educating North Carolina’s young people.

Ferrel Guillory

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