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Tom Campbell: The ‘free as practicable’ N.C. promise

Filmmaker Steve Channing’s excellent “A Generation of Change” on UNC-TV, was a stark reminder of post-war North Carolina, a state wracked by poverty, poor health and uneducated citizens.

The documentary focused on the achievements of Bill Friday, Terry Sanford and others who came home from World War II determined to serve their state, just as they had served their nation. Friday and Sanford recognized the way to that better future was through better education and passionately spearheaded efforts to improve primary and secondary education.

We made great investments resulting in solid progress, but few can deny that there is much more to be done. We do not uniformly have the best and brightest teachers, employ the best technology, use the most rigorous curriculum or have good ways to measure performance. Student outcomes indicate we are not sufficiently preparing students with the problem-solving or job skills needed in today’s workplace or for advanced education.

Our state Constitution proclaims that North Carolina will provide a uniform system of free public schools, with equal opportunities for all children to be afforded a “sound, basic education.”  It further declares the state will provide a system of higher education that will… “as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense.” Notice the frequent use of the word “free.”

We can be proud of the public primary and secondary school system North Carolina has developed, but even as we boast that our schools, public universities and community colleges are among the best and most affordable in the nation we must recognize costs prevent many from getting the education they want and need.  President Obama recently declared that the first two years of community college should be provided free to all on a degree or jobs training path and who maintained a sufficient grade point average.

We think those protesting about who pays the costs are barking up the wrong tree. The better question is whether this is a goal worth pursuing. Do we truly believe that a better-educated citizenry will earn more money, pay more taxes and likely be happier? To be competitive with other nations do we need better trained and educated people? Are North Carolinians wanting to renege on our constitutional promise that education is a valued public purpose and that this education should be provided as free as practicable? Wouldn’t we prefer our tax dollars be spent educating rather than giving foreign aid or economic incentives?

Obama’s proposal was modeled after The Tennessee Promise, using lottery funds to pay community college tuitions for students who qualify. Our state is arguably already subsidizing costs because of our low tuition rates but we can do more. We do believe students will value their education more and work harder if they share some of the costs, so perhaps a sliding scale based on family income could be implemented. But when we have a $20 billion state budget and trillion-dollar federal budget it is hard to believe we can’t make this goal a reality.

Education is not just a cost, but an investment. Our parents paid taxes to educate us and we have the same pay it forward obligation. Where are the leaders to make another generation of change, the North Carolina Promise?

Tom Campbell is former assistant state treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of issues.

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