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Rep. Craig Horn (R-Union) is the education legislator. It’s an odd moniker considering he only moved to the state in 2005, has no education background and didn’t even start out focused on the subject. 

An almost 8-year veteran of the Air Force, Horn made his living as a food broker, retiring in 2002 from his business which he says was the largest food broker in the country at the time. When he retired, he worked with big names such as General Mills, Butterball and ConAgra

His office in the Legislative Office Building is festooned with armed forces memorabilia, including pictures, medals and even a military book with the title “Assault on the Liberty,” a book describing the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, which took place while he was in the Air Force. He says he lost friends in that assault. 

He’s also a fan of Winston Churchill, and the British prime minister’s name came up numerous times during our conversation. 

So it’s not surprising that his take on education in North Carolina is imbued with lessons learned from the military. 

“You lead from in front. You command from the rear,” he said of education. “It’s the teachers who are the leaders. They’re out in front.” 

But none of that explains how he came to be known for education. That story takes a more twisted route.

He moved to North Carolina, the father of four and grandfather of seven. He had no political aspirations. 

“I moved here to be a full-time grandpa,” he said. 

But he still needed to fill his time between visits with his offspring’s offspring. He tried golf, but admits he wasn’t very good. He had always been active in the community, so he started volunteering in schools. But it wasn’t until the House seat in his district came open that others started clamoring for him to run for office. He was reluctant. 

“Some friends of mine called and said, ‘You know you should run for a seat in the House,’” he said. “I said ‘I have a seat in the house. My house.’”

You can’t just talk. You have to act.

But he mentioned it to his grandchildren, and it was they who ultimately decided his course. They reminded him that he always told them that you can’t just talk. You have to act. 

“I like to think that I set an example for my family and my community,” he said. “So my grandkids called my bluff.”

He joined the General Assembly in 2011. The first issue he became interested in was drugs. First artificial drugs — synthetic heroin and marijuana — which he was told were major problems in North Carolina. And then he started looking into the methamphetamine problem in the state. 

“It was exciting,” he said. “I thought I could help save lives.”

But that issue led him directly to the youngest population in our state: the students who are often most affected by issues related to drugs. 

He realized education is the number one, two and three top issue in his county, and in his second term in 2013-14, he co-chaired the education appropriations committee. He has been focused on education ever since.

“All it takes is one person really feeling passionate. Really going to bat to make changes.”

“I’m afraid to say that I really feel I can make a difference in how we do education. I’m afraid to say that because I think it’s a little bit on the arrogant side,” he said. “But you know, all it takes is one person really feeling passionate. Really going to bat to make changes.” 

Now, Horn co-chairs both the House K-12 Education Committee and the House Education Appropriations Committee. Two of his signature issues this session are differentiated pay and digital learning, he said. 

With digital learning, he’s fascinated by the possibilities that exist for youth raised on technology. 

“A kid doesn’t read the manual, he jumps in and does it,” he said. “That’s education. Now we need to harness it.”

He’s also interested in the chance that digital learning can help level the education field for low-income and rural students. 

And he thinks differentiated pay is essential to create a more tiered system of rewards for our state’s educators. But he is quick to say what differentiated pay is not. 

“Differentiated pay does not mean bonuses or pay for performance,” he said. “Differentiated pay means different people doing different things should be paid differently.”

He wants educators to have a reasonable base level of pay that enables them to work without having to worry about financial issues. 

On that note, he thinks educators need better pay, an issue that should be addressed in part this session with many lawmakers and leaders promising to raise the pay of starting teachers to $35,000. 

“I can’t have somebody worried about whether their car is going to be repossessed while they’re standing up in a class full of 4th graders,” he said. 

It must be acknowledged, however, that critics of salary increases say not enough is being done for veteran teachers. But perhaps Horn’s ideas on differentiated pay can help with that. 

He thinks that teachers should have opportunities for responsibilities and duties beyond the norm. And if they take those opportunities, they should be compensated for them. That, he says, is differentiated pay.

“You reward people for excellence for achieving,” he said. “For reaching and attaining higher levels of delivery, whatever they’re delivering.”

I also asked him about a few topics that I’m particularly interested in. One is Sen. Jerry Tillman’s (R-Randolph) bill that would scrap the position of state superintendent and the Board of Education and replace them with a secretary of education. 

Horn wasn’t so sure about that. 

“There’s always something good… no, there isn’t always something good in every bill,” he said. “Some of them, pencil should have never been put to paper. But there’s something to be learned. How can we make it work?”

In Tillman’s idea he sees a kernel of an idea. He thinks the state needs a secretary of education. But not to replace the current leadership. Rather, he thinks the secretary should oversee the entire continuum of education: pre-K, K-12, community colleges and universities. He thinks there needs to be somebody working to ensure that priorities and goals are connected across sectors. 

For instance, he mentioned the problem of high school students graduating and going to college in need of remediation. 

“Maybe we’re not teaching what the college wants,” he said. “How about we talk to each other?”

There needs to be one person responsible for education generally. Someone to accept blame for the failures and credit for the successes. 

Plus he thinks there needs to be one person responsible for education generally. Someone to accept blame for the failures and credit for the successes. 

“I’m responsible. I did it. And I’m accountable for what is done. Period. Not pass the buck,” he said.

I also asked Horn about a complaint I hear often in my travels around the state: that the General Assembly isn’t funding localities adequately. 

To that he responded that since he’s been in office, state spending on education has increased.

And that’s true. The revised education appropriations for 2010-11 was $7,085,588,912. It’s gone up every year since and for 2014-15 was $8,104,976,608. (Go here for a primer on the budget)

But per-pupil spending from the state has decreased. That’s because the number of students in state schools has gone up faster than the amount of spending on education.

Some of the decrease, Horn attributes to the change in the state’s financial reality — the effects of the financial crash of 2008 and the resulting recession.

“We long for the good old days. Let me tell you as I tell my kids, these are your good old days,” he said. “They’re not mine. They’re yours. It doesn’t matter about the good old days. What matters is here and now.” 

He says the question of per-pupil spending is more complicated than simple numbers can describe. 

He uses an analogy to explain his thinking on the subject. As a food guy, he references his business to illustrate: 

Imagine, he says, that you are trying to ship turkeys from point A to point B. A truck driver says he will move 100 pounds of turkeys for $100. Now say you tell the truck driver you want to add another 20 pounds of turkey. Does the cost now go up to $120? If so, why? 

Now apply that to per-pupil spending. If $5,390 is spent to educate a child based on the number of children in the student population. And you add another 100 students, should that cost go up? The school buildings are there. The teachers are there. The curriculum is set. Most of the materials already exist. 

“Isn’t there some kind of decreasing cost for increasing volume?” he asked. 

But he also looks at it another way. If you spend $5,390 per student and the student population doesn’t change the next year, should the cost remain $5,390? Well not necessarily, he said. If you want continually improving schools, you might want to up the per-pupil funding so there is money for teacher professional development. Or, here is another question:

“Could we find a way that a teacher could actually handle 30 kids per class instead of 25? Should it therefore cost us less? No. Not necessarily,” he said. “A doesn’t equal B. And we’re not taking that into consideration. We’re looking for an argument.”

Horn is a legislator that takes into account nuance and complexity when considering the issue of education. 

So, no easy answers, but it does illustrate something about Horn: he is a legislator that takes into account nuance and complexity when considering the issue of education. 

But that also means that what he says won’t be satisfying to everybody, or, perhaps, anybody. 

Then again, what he says doesn’t matter as much as what he does. As he told his grandkids, “You can’t just talk. You gotta do.” 

By the end of the session, we’ll know more about his batting average for change on this issue that he cares so much about.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.