Editorial: Investing in education

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Amid the gloom of a global recession, Gov. Bev Perdue brightened the outlook for North Carolina public education during her first State of the State address Monday night. Perdue set the right tone by looking forward and pledging more investment in the state’s best economic development tool, its schools.
“For North Carolina, education is the priority,” Perdue said, and she hit two high notes for the schools.
First, Perdue said she did not want to reduce spending for education, even though lawmakers are looking at a $3 billion hole in the state budget. In fact, she set the goal of increasing the amount the state budgets per pupil, a statement that brought a standing ovation from the lawmakers and government officials who were her audience.
Second, Perdue proposed the state end the “testing mania” in public schools by “eliminating unnecessary tests,” a pledge that should cheer teachers and many parents and children. She was short on details on that and every other subject she touched, but the fact that the topic earned a mention in an important speech could say a lot.
Many people wish Perdue had said more. County officials want more information about her plans for use of $88 million in state lottery money. Rowan commissioners have been using the county’s share of that fund to pay off school bonds.
And in a speech touting education, Perdue said barely a word about community colleges, except to mention them as part of the state’s “seamless learning” from pre-K to college. A vow not to cut community college funding ó in fact, to bring that funding up to date instead of lagging enrollment by a year ó would strengthen the state’s learning continuum.
Those details and others will come out when Perdue unveils her budget next week. Already some people are skeptical that she can find the funds to boost education spending. She gave a few clues, saying the state must pursue federal recovery funds, “stand up to the sweet seductions of special interests” (could that mean higher taxes?), call for “truth in budgeting” and make painful decisions.
And she threw down the gauntlet. “Our business leaders put a lot of energy into making sure North Carolina’s tax rate is competitive,” Perdue said. “These leaders need to put the same effort into helping North Carolina be the home of the nation’s best educated workforce.” Again, there were no details on how to do that, but the line will resonate with many citizens.
Perdue peppered her speech with determination and pledged a new way of budgeting the state’s money ó “no longer business as usual.” Of North Carolina’s place in the global economic crisis, she said, “To come through it, and we will, we must make tough decisions ó choices I will make and you will make. That is our job and our responsibility.”
Bev Perdue is no Pollyanna. She knows a nearly impossible challenge lies ahead. Balancing the state budget without cutting into the muscle of important services or hitting everyone with higher taxes will take some doing. She may have been short on details about how to do that, but she was long on commitment to education. Perdue has her priorities straight.