A Clear Choice

North Carolina’s education policies have been hanging in the balance for several years, ever since the 2009 recession forced substantial budget cuts. Since then, the big question has been whether the austerity imposed by the loss of revenues signaled a new long-term path, or whether it was a mere temporary interruption of the rapid expansion of programs that occurred in the pre-recession period.

The state’s gubernatorial election personifies that clash of values when it comes to the two candidates’ education policies. Democrat Walter Dalton represents a return to the free-spending past, calling for many new programs and expansions of existing programs. His platform could almost be described as a “love song” to the public education establishment. He even said he wants to be known as the “public school governor.”

Republican Pat McCrory, on the other hand, has crafted a platform that heralds the shift to lower spending levels as a new, permanent, frugal reality. He even challenges the long-held belief that the state needs to send more students to higher education.

The candidates’ respective suggestions for the relationship between K-12 schools and community colleges are very telling. Dalton wishes to expand a variety of programs that straddle the line between college and high school: early college programs that allow high school students to accumulate college credits, “career academies” that begin training high school students for specific careers at an earlier age, and advanced placement programs that permit high school students to get credit for college level work. While intended to enable students to complete their educations more quickly and at their own pace, these programs also blur the lines between K-12 and the community college system: K-12 entities will be performing the work of community colleges (and vice versa).

McCrory, on the other hand, wants K-12 schools to do the job they were intended for instead of passing it onto the community colleges:

Too many resources are currently being diverted to teach students skills in college that should have been taught in high school. For instance, 65 percent of high school graduates entering community college in 2011 needed remedial coursework.

Instead of initiating new programs, McCrory emphasized shoring up standards and methods by “focusing on skill attainment and measuring program successes.” His plan states about University of North Carolina graduates that “we must better evaluate the students we produce rather than just those we enroll.” He also emphasizes the need to “fight grade inflation” at UNC schools.

He added that he favors online education as a way to keep costs down, and suggests that better counseling will help steer students who are not academically inclined into vocational and technical programs.

Dalton’s plan offers a great deal to K-12 teachers.  First of all, he wants to take teacher salaries to the national average (ignoring the fact that the average salary for all North Carolinians is below the national average). He also wants to expand Regional Leadership Academies, which prepare teachers for administrative duties.

He lists three ways to add to the state’s teaching ranks:

  • “Protect” the Teaching Fellows Program, which provides a $6,500 per year scholarship to education majors in exchange for a four-year commitment to teach at a North Carolina public school.
  • “Expand” a “teacher cadet program” for secondary students considering a career in education.
  • “Establish” a “Teacher Recruiting Office” within secondary schools to encourage young people to consider the teaching profession.

Dalton favors adding or expanding several scholarship or tax credit programs. He is proposing to establish a High-Value Occupational Loan Program, which will provide loans to students who are enrolled in in-demand vocational programs training welders, electricians, plumbers, and health care technicians.

At the university level, he hopes to expand the Last Credits Scholar Program, in which UNC schools seek out students who have left school with less than a year to graduate and provides incentives for them to return to school and complete their degrees.

He also wishes to expand an existing tax credit that enables families to save money for college that is untaxed. Right now, there are limits of $2,500 (for single filers) and $5,000 (for joint filers) per family; Dalton proposes making the limits per beneficiary rather than per family, allowing families with several college-bound children to multiply their savings.

The candidates do not differ on every issue. Both indicate they consider improving graduation rates to be an important goal. Both express a desire to emphasize vocational education and to better align the educational system with the needs of the business community and labor force demands.

However, McCrory said that he wants to have two tracks in high school—one academic and one vocational—with separate diplomas. Dalton is against the idea of separate diplomas, saying that they unfairly limit vocational students should they wish to pursue an academic program in college at a later date.

Dalton says he wants to restore as much of the “1.7 billion” dollars in state education funding cuts of the last few years, as much as possible by using new revenues raised from “closing tax loopholes and ineffective credits and exemptions.”

Dalton’s expansive view of government leads to some rather odd areas for education policy, especially when it comes to early childhood programs. For one, he wishes to “provide every newborn with a library card.” Even if one believed that distributing library cards would lead to more parents reading to their one- and two-year-old children—the reason for this policy—it would seem more sensible to distribute them to the parents, since it is unlikely that children that small will check out books.

Dalton also wants to expand the Nurse-Family Partnership program. The program attempts to foster better pre-natal and early childhood care, which seems to be more properly a health care issue, for the Department of Health and Human Services, than it is an educational issue.

McCrory makes no mention of the need to raise revenues, which is consistent with his “live within our means” policies.

One consideration for both candidates, however, is that the real power in the state is the legislature. The legislature appoints the UNC Board of Governors and controls the state’s educational purse strings; without legislative backing, it is debatable how much a governor can forward his or her agenda.

That is especially true for Dalton this year. Should he win, his party will almost assuredly be in the minority. Just as with Governor Perdue the last two years, his budget proposals and many of his initiatives would likely be dead on arrival.

McCrory, however, would likely be able to work with his majority party to get much of his platform passed into law. Especially since his recommendations are in line with the legislature’s frugal approach.  That may be a great thing for the state, since his program of higher standards and accountability offer a fresh alternative to the failed “throw money at it” policies of the past.