As North Carolina struggles to choose between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in this year’s presidential election, the state is much more certain about its choice for governor. Republican Pat McCrory, the former mayor of Charlotte, leads in the polls by more than 10 points over Lieutenant Governor Walter Dalton, no surprise considering incumbent Bev Perdue, also a Democrat, chose to not seek re-election amidst plummeting approval ratings.
Although the 2012 gubernatorial campaign has been dominated by the economic recovery and job creation, the race also comes during an inauspicious time for the North Carolina education system. The Republican-controlled State Assembly cut education by $1.7 billion between 2011-2013, and North Carolina as a state ranks in the bottom 10 nationwide in per pupil spending, according to a National Education Association report.
Dalton has tried to capitalize on those numbers with his education plan called “Great Jobs Grow from Great Schools.” As a former co-chair of the state Senate Education Committee, much of his political career has been aimed at educational reform, and the gubernatorial race is no exception. His plan is focused on implementing and expanding many of the programs he proposed as lieutenant governor, which would require a reversal of the recent funding cuts.
“The Republican General Assembly needlessly cut financial aid for students when they were pursuing a cuts-only approach to try to close the budget deficit, and that has really harmed North Carolina’s ability to compete in the 21st century economy,” said Firoz Jameel, a Duke senior and North Carolina native who is taking a semester off to work for Dalton’s campaign. “Most distressingly, actually, is it has hurt the ability for a lot of students to afford college.”
Earlier this spring, the University of North Carolina Board of Governors approved a tuition increase of 8.8 percent, on average, across the system in 2012-2013, and another 4.2 percent bump the following year. UNC-Chapel Hill featured the highest percent tuition increase, jumping up 9.9% for in-state students to $7,500. North Carolina State University’s 2012-2013 tuition of $7,644 remains the highest in the system, a 9.8 percent increase from the previous year.
But with North Carolina facing a budget deficit of $2 billion in the 2013 fiscal year—11.5 percent of the overall budget—the state is facing increasingly tough choices about public spending. McCrory’s education plan aims to increase the efficiency of the programs that already exist, hoping to better align them with the realities of the modern economy, with the goal being that no student “move back in with his or her parents” after completing a degree.
“McCrory’s education program is much more realistic and forward-looking,” said Jay Schalin, director of state policy analysis at the John William Pope Center for Education Policy, a conservative think tank based in North Carolina. “He understands that there’s a problem in K-12 education that is causing so many college students, especially at the community college level, to need remedial work…. He’s going to focus on that.”
Part of McCrory’s plan involves the addition of a wide range of performance-based initiatives for educators and students, highlighted by a push to add class grade distributions to a student’s transcript. With the average class grade listed next to a student’s individual performance, schools and employers can better evaluate the rigors of specific academic programs.
Dalton’s plan, in contrast, calls for a repeal of the recent education spending cuts and a plan to reward efficiency, rather than punish underperformance. He also plans to continue the programs he presented under the Innovative Education Initiative Act, designed to give high school students better vocational skills and early college credits. The addition of so many educational programs, though, raises the need for more money in an already cash-strapped system. In his most recent plan, Dalton outlines a three-pronged method of raising the money through taxation: repealing tax cuts on the most wealthy North Carolinians—business owners who are worth more than $5 billion, increased taxation on Internet purchases from international distributors like Amazon and the increased tax revenue from a recovering state economy. While the state is not headed toward a recession, though, it is projected for economic growth of just two percent over the next two years, according to a Charlotte Observer report in June.
“Dalton’s program seems to be a love-song to the educational establishment, to the public school teachers,” Schalin said. “[It] is looking to the past when it seemed we had unlimited resources to throw money at new programs.” Despite the wide separation between the two proposed policies, though, private universities like Duke will feel little impact from the election. Local students, however, may be affected by two proposed policies under Dalton’s plan. The lieutenant governor supports the expansion of a 529 college savings account program—which currently offers an income tax deduction of $2,500 for individuals and $5,000 for joint filers in middle and low-income families—to include each child in a family, instead of the family unit as a whole. This would incentivize families with multiple children to save for college. Also, Dalton’s economic plan offers tax credits to companies for hiring new college graduates and the long-term unemployed.
Still, though, Schalin says any student—especially one at Duke—shouldn’t make a decision this November based on education policy alone.
“I would not ever vote according to that. That kind of very narrow self-interest is a bad way to vote.”