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N.C. is moving away from being competitive

Gov. Pat McCrory and Republican lawmakers like to talk up competitiveness when it comes to business. Both McCrory and his GOP legislative compatriots have been fast and furiously proposing policies and “reforms” they say will give the state competitive business advantage in the Southeast and nation.

On education, though, we see little of such striving for competitiveness. The budget proposal McCrory unveiled this week is the most recent example. The plan includes some promising strategies but also includes moves that could set the state back educationally, not position it competitively.

That’s shortsighted. North Carolina can’t be truly competitive in business without policies that improve education quality.

At the higher education level, McCrory’s call for a $135 million cut in funding for the UNC system comes as the system is already dealing with $400 million in cuts over the last few years. Those cuts have meant elimination of courses and other reductions that hampered students in getting their degrees and in getting jobs – plus it increased students’ costs so some dropped out. McCrory’s call for a 12.3 percent hike in tuition for out-of-state students on six high-demand campuses could mean the loss of talented students. In the past, some of those students stayed after graduation and contributed greatly to the state. Scaring them away with a big tuition hike would be our loss.

UNC system president Tom Ross expressed a legitimate concern: “I worry about the impact additional reductions will have on our ability to provide high-quality educational opportunities to our residents and to assist in North Carolina’s economic recovery.”

We do too. North Carolina became the great state that it is – separating itself from many of its poorer Southerner neighbors – in no small part due to the university system. Its low tuition has allowed millions of the state’s young people to get an education and become working, tax-supporting residents – assets the state needs in this struggling economic environment.

Thankfully, McCrory doesn’t raise in-state university tuition. But the budget does cut $20 million in funding for enrollment in the community college system, which has been crucial in retraining workers to fit jobs in the new economy.

At the public school level, McCrory’s budget does include welcome money for 5,000 more at-risk children to enroll in prekindergarten after the Republican legislature cut enrollment over the last two years. The new budget still doesn’t make up for those cuts and comes up short of what’s needed to provide pre-K for many of the students who qualify.

That’s a shame because pre-K is another business-competitive move. Research shows that this early intervention can pay off in keeping kids on track to stay in school and graduate with the skills to get a good job, and to be in the pool of applicants businesses want. It is also sets at-risk kids on a path away from trouble.

McCrory’s budget does provide a 1 percent pay raise for teachers and state employees. That meager pay increase is better than nothing but it is hardly an incentive for high-quality educators to want to come or stay in the state. Notes state School Superintendent June Atkinson: “On teacher salaries alone, North Carolina’s competitive edge is gone and we are losing quality teachers every day because neighbor states offer better pay.”

North Carolina ranks 46th on teacher pay in the nation. It ranks dead last on pay hikes over the past 10 years; every state in the Southeast raised pay at double or triple the rate North Carolina has.

Neither the governor’s budget nor legislative changes are tackling these competitive weaknesses. Talk is cheap. Action is needed.

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