David Post: Investing in education

  • Posted: Wednesday, May 15, 2013 12:19 a.m.

It provides the foundation for a vibrant economy

When my mother graduated from Boyden High School in 1944, her father handed her a $50 bill as a graduation gift. She held it for a few seconds before he said, “OK. Now, give it back. I need that to pay your college tuition.”

My grandparents were dirt poor. They were immigrants, born in small Fiddler-on-the-Roof-like villages in Poland without educations. My grandfather became a peddler with a horse-drawn cart, buying and selling whatever he could. On a two-year trek from Portland, Maine, to El Paso, Texas, and back, he met my grandmother, who was visiting her sister in South Carolina.

In those days, a peddler’s dream was to open a store. They did, but during the Great Depression, they bounced from town to town in the Virginia and North Carolina mountains until 1939 when they found a store in Salisbury with living quarters upstairs.

Like all parents, they wanted their children to live better lives. They knew that education was the only key to that door. When my parents got married before my mom finished college, my grandparents objected for fear that she would not finish. (She did, and did pretty well.)

For my siblings and me, my parents viewed education on par with breathing. It was critical to life. I entered law school with no clue how to pay for it, graduating with the equivalent of $60,000 debt in today’s money. At age 36, I made my last loan payment and finally owned my education.

When my youngest child graduates from college next year, I will have spent $300,000, more than our house cost, educating them. Their education was more important to me than great houses or new cars.

In 1960, North Carolina’s economy was among the nation’s worst. Terry Sanford ran for governor on an education platform. He told voters they were going to have to pay higher taxes to improve the education system and create good jobs. He probably couldn’t win today, but he did back then. Sanford doubled spending on education, improving the public schools, creating the community college system, establishing the Governor’s School and the School of the Arts, and consolidating the University of North Carolina system. His expansion of Research Triangle Park led to North Carolina’s economic surge. His consuming focus on education became a national model.

India and China have pulled hundreds of millions of people out of poverty with enormous investments in education and have created a well-educated middle class who are now accused of taking great jobs at U.S. companies because U.S. students and workers lack the skills. Those countries understand that, like a tree, education takes years to reap rewards. If not planted today, neither will be here tomorrow. We taught them.

The backbone of every great economic engine in the country, and the world, is education. Research Triangle Park was created from nothing but the idea that with three great universities nearby, it should work. Like RTP, the nation’s great economic growth centers are located in areas with well-educated workforces, not those with the lowest taxes. All enjoy half the unemployment rates, triple (or more) housing values and hundreds of points higher college board scores than Rowan County. And they pay higher taxes.

Why can’t Rowan County understand that education, not an unquenchable thirst to lower taxes, creates jobs? Federal and state budget cuts will reduce funding for Rowan-Salisbury School system $4.6 million next year. The school board asked the county commission to fill that hole. They said, “No. That would require a 4-cent tax increase.”

That 4 cents equals an additional $40 tax on a $100,000 house. About $3.33 per month. The $50 my grandfather let my mother hold would be $750 today.

If the county valued education as did my grandparents, they would raise taxes and fund the schools. Instead, there will be a lot of talk about schools wasting money and promises to not raise taxes. The schools will struggle even more. Rowan County will not attract any meaningful job creators for years. Food Lion is the county’s largest employer. It has several hundred employees in upper management at its Salisbury headquarters. Probably 75 percent don’t live in Rowan. They commute. Like them, those with an education will leave.

David Post lives in Salisbury and serves on the city Planning Board. Email: DavidPostOpinion@gmail.com.

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