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New budget would defund valued summer program

Attending Governor’s School of North Carolina the summer after her junior year in high school gave sophomore Elena Botella a unique perspective on learning, and she called the program “one of the best experiences of her life.” Yet North Carolina’s state deficit may signal the educational program’s demise.

Governor’s School is a six-week summer residential program designed to give gifted rising high school seniors opportunities to study specialized subjects at either Salem College in Winston-Salem or Meredith College in Raleigh. The North Carolina General Assembly suggested the complete defunding of Governor’s School this month after releasing the proposed education budget in its efforts to reduce the projected $2.4 billion state deficit for fiscal year 2012.

The program has touched students at Duke as well as across the state. Botella said the program was instrumental in making her loyal to North Carolina.

“I want to live and work in North Carolina, and I don’t think that would have been true had I not gone to Governor’s School,” she said.

The general assembly currently allots $849,588 to Governor’s School to cover the program’s costs, and its budget for this year is considered safe from the cuts. Governor’s School was funded entirely by the general assembly until last year, when the body cut its budget by $475,000 forcing officials to charge a $500 per student. Now, in an effort to cut the state’s deficit, the general assembly has proposed eliminating all money for the program and funding Governor’s School entirely through tuition by charging a fee of $1,700 per student.

Gov. Bev Perdue’s Press Secretary Chris Mackey said the final version of the education budget will be signed by the end of the fiscal year, no later than June 30. The budget, which was written by the education subcommittee, will go from the North Carolina House to the Senate before being presented to Perdue, who has veto power.

Mackey noted that education is a priority for Perdue and she has not targeted Governor’s School in cuts, but the magnitude of the budget deficit will force Perdue to look at the budget as a whole.

[Governor’s School] is very important for her, but it’s a lousy budget year,” she said.

The program was founded in 1963 by Gov. and Duke President Terry Sanford. Participating students are nominated by teachers, principals and counselors in their schools, and the school district’s superintendent or then determines which students should submit applications to a statewide selection committee. Two spots are guaranteed for representatives from each school district.

Mary Watson, director of Governor’s School of North Carolina, said she does not think the program can continue without legislative funding, and added that the elimination of Governor’s School would be detrimental to statewide education. Providing educational opportunities to advanced students is key to helping North Carolina improve its economic environment, Watson said.

Governor’s School was recently forced to decrease its enrollment from 800 total students to 600, with 300 on each campus, according to the program’s website. Although the program received 18,000 applicants this year, Watson added that many students were discouraged from applying because of the tuition fee. As a result, she believes the program’s current population and applicants have become more economically elite.

“We’re still a quality program, but we’re not able to reach students who are not financially able,” she said.

Jim Hart, president of Governor’s School Alumni Association, said in an email Friday that the program helped ease the state’s transition from an economy based on tobacco and textiles to one focused on high tech industries. He compared cutting Governor’s School funding to “deciding to stop putting fuel into the economic engine that has made N.C. one of the best places to live and work in the world.”

Hart added that he thinks Governor’s School has compensated for the poor job North Carolina high schools do with gifted students’ education. He said schools focus on getting as many students to graduate as possible and teaching only the things on which students will be tested.

“GS does not teach facts,” wrote Hart, who attended the program in 1979. “It teaches theories, how to generate them, how to challenge the ones that are currently in vogue, and how to think critically about situations. No other school in the state does that.”

Botella also said Governor’s School’s interdisciplinary curriculum—which features courses in subjects such as ethics and philosophy—enabled her to learn “more in those weeks of the program than in many years of academic study.”

Because the budget is not yet finalized, Watson said she remains optimistic that the program will continue. On the other hand, Hart said that while the Governor’s School Alumni Association is considering holding a rally in support of the program or purchasing advertising to raise awareness, its voice is “only one of hundreds and many of those other voices come with well-funded PACs.”

Benjamin Ward, associate dean for student development at Duke, said he is “unequivocally opposed” to the budget plan, which he called “very short-sighted.” In addition to his post at Duke, Ward taught at Governor’s School at Salem College for more than 12 years. He said the program was “the highlight of his teaching career” and added that it provides opportunities students may not otherwise receive in their hometowns.

For some Governor’s School alumni, the experience of the program has lasted well beyond the six-week session. Sophomore Ethan Mann still keeps in touch with friends he met at Governor’s School of North Carolina nearly three years ago. Mann called Governor’s School “a huge part” of his life, as it enabled him to learn about topics he could not be exposed to in a traditional school environment.

“It's something I want other kids to have the opportunity to have,” he said.

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