Several governor hopefuls talk public schools

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 30, 2012

RALEIGH (AP) — The leading Democratic candidates for North Carolina governor did little to differentiate themselves on their views on public schools during a forum Thursday that placed them on the same stage for a debate-style event for the first time during the condensed primary campaign.
Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, former U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge and state Rep. Bill Faison all criticized the Republican-penned state budget this year for cutting spending to the public schools and forcing local districts to make cuts of their own which led to eliminating teacher and teacher assistant positions. Two other candidates — Gary Dunn of Matthews and Bruce Blackmon of Buies Creek — also participated.
Three GOP candidates for governor followed with a similar forum at the Raleigh Convention Center, but missing was leading candidate Pat McCrory, who had a scheduling conflict. The candidates will be on the May 8 primary ballot and want to succeed Gov. Beverly Perdue, a Democrat, who isn’t seeking re-election.
Dalton and Etheridge both expressed support for additional revenue to hire back classroom personnel, in particular through the sales tax. Perdue has said her budget proposal for the coming year would raise the sales tax for education funding. Faison has been promoting a somewhat similar plan for months. The GOP allowed a temporary penny sales tax to expire, meaning $1 billion less annually for state government.
“You cannot get quality education on the cheap,” said Etheridge, a former state schools superintendent, adding that what Republicans “should not have done is done away with the temporary sales tax … I really believe that people really want to see education move to the forefront again with action, rather than just lip service.”
Speaking at the annual conference of the North Carolina Association of School Administrators, the trio also said they opposed tax credits or vouchers that would give parents tax dollars to send children to private schools because they siphons money away from taxpayer-funded schools.
“Sending our tax dollars and money away from the schools is only going to hurt our educational process,” Faison said. Perdue let become law without her signature last year a credit for parents of children with disabilities that need assistance public schools can’t provide.
The three also didn’t like a 2004 law that requires most school districts to begin classes to end their year no later than June 10 and start no earlier than August 25. The tourism industry and many parents lobbied hard for the law. Dalton said local districts used to adjust their schedules based on regional needs, such as harvest seasons.
“It’s always been a local issue, and I think the local boards of education can address that far better than at the state level,” he said.
The GOP forum featured candidates with divergent views.
James Harney, who owns a promotional advertising business in Cumberland County, said he was against voucher and tax credits for students to attend private schools, which generally has received more support from Republicans. Scott Jones, a landscaper and business owner from Guilford County, supports vouchers but said the school year is already too long.
James Mahan, a former high school educator and coach from Lincoln County, supports prayer in the public schools and said he would raise teacher pay to the highest in the nation, but he didn’t provide details on his plan.
Like McCrory, GOP candidates Charles Kenneth Moss of Randleman and Paul Wright of Dudley didn’t participate.
The trio of Democrats also expressed interest in extending the school year, which is now 185 days. But most districts received exemptions from the State Board of Education to remain at 180 days for the second year in a row. Any extension, however, would need to include additional funds and possibly more funds for teacher salaries, according to Dalton and Etheridge.
Save for Blackmon, the Democrats took a skeptical view on offering merit pay to teachers, saying it’s hard to measure the performance needed to differentiate between good and great teachers. Dalton, a former education budget chairman in the Senate, said elected officials need to focus upon raising teacher salaries to the national average first.
Blackmon, a retired physician, used the forum as a platform for his lone campaign plank — creating a state endowment that he said would reach billions of dollars in less than 40 years by investing 5 percent of the net income from the North Carolina Education Lottery. The idea, he said, would ease budget pressures for generations to come.
“The thing I want to do is see you get where you don’t have to wrestle all the time with budget money and do other things,” Blackmon told the administrators.
Dunn, a student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and father of six, largely agreed with his fellow candidates but also said he would rely on those in the audience if elected governor to advise him on issues.
“My opinions don’t make policy, my opinions don’t make law,” he said, adding that the governor “speaks for the people and the consensus of the people.”
Gardenia Henley of Winston-Salem, another Democratic candidate, didn’t attend the forum.