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Gary Pearce: North Carolina has taken a wrong turn

By Gary Pearce

Sixty years ago this week, a new governor set North Carolina on a new course.

In his inauguration speech on Jan. 5, 1961, Terry Sanford said the state should build its future not on low taxes, but on better education. Calling education “the rock upon which I will build the house of my administration,” he said: “We must give our children the quality of education which they need to keep up in this rapidly advancing, scientific, complex world. They must be prepared to compete with the best in the nation, and I dedicate my public life to the proposition that education must be of a quality which is second to none. A second-rate education can only mean a second-rate future for North Carolina.”

For 50 years, North Carolina kept to that course under Sanford, Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt, Mike Easley, Bev Perdue and Roy Cooper and Republican Govs. Jim Holshouser and Jim Martin.

The state became a leader in the South and the nation. It became one of the best places in America to live and work. People from across the country and around the world flocked here.

But in 2010 we took a new turn. It was a wrong turn and the wrong path for our future. The legislature retreated from North Carolina’s commitment to public education and public school teachers. Legislators shortchanged public schools and shifted public tax dollars to private schools. They skimped on teacher pay and demonized and demoralized public school teachers.

The Southern Regional Education Board says teachers in North Carolina today earn 25.3% less than similarly educated professionals.

Some legislators and their supporters call public schools “government schools.” Their hostility is obvious.

Today, we need a renewed debate over the right way forward. It’s the same debate Sanford sparked.

In 1957, then-Gov. Luther Hodges proposed tax cuts and tax breaks for business and industry. Hodges was a businessman himself, a retired textile executive. He was comfortable in boardrooms, and he was successful in recruiting businesses to North Carolina.

In their book “Terry Sanford: Politics, Progress and Outrageous Ambitions” (Duke University Press, 1999), Howard Covington and Marion Ellis called Hodges’s plan “trickle-down.”

The theory was, “If business and industry expanded … then the state’s tax base would expand and there would be more money for schools and other state services.”

Sanford quickly challenged Hodges. Tossing aside a prepared speech on constitutional revisions to a Young Democrats meeting, he called the governor’s approach “dangerously wrong.”

He said the state instead should raise standards of education. That would attract jobs and industry.

Sanford believed North Carolinians would pay higher taxes for better schools. At one campaign stop, he was asked how he’d pay for his plan. Seeing no reporters, Sanford replied, “From taxes.”

The crowd applauded. Sanford beamed. Later, his no-nonsense campaign manager Bert Bennett told him, “They thought you said Texas.”

But Sanford meant taxes. He supported a $100 million (big bucks then) increase in school spending — a 22% pay raise for teachers, the hiring of 2,800 new teachers, more libraries and school supplies and the beginning of the community college system.

To pay for it all, he won a bitter battle to levy the sales tax on food, which became known as “Terry’s tax.” The tax hurt him politically. But he got the job done. It wasn’t a “hold the line” budget, he said, it was a “line of departure.”

North Carolina took off.

We hear the same debate in Raleigh today: low taxes or better schools. The legislature now is, as Sanford said then, “dangerously wrong.” We need to set our course right again.

Gary Pearce was a reporter and editor at The News & Observer, a political consultant, and an adviser to Governor Jim Hunt (1976-1984 and 1992-2000). He blogs about politics and government at www.NewDayforNC.com.

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