If you want to see the campaign for governor at its testiest, watch the candidates when the term “voucher” comes up.
Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, the Republican candidate, said he supports some form of school vouchers as a way to help disabled students, or those failing school.
Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, the Democrat, opposes vouchers as a threat to the state's public schools.
Their views on vouchers are just one way the candidates differ in how to improve education in North Carolina.
McCrory wants a renewed emphasis on vocational education. He also wants to offer scholarships to students preparing for hard-to-fill jobs.
Perdue says she would offer more students free education at state community colleges and universities, and would expand the existing early-childhood programs Smart Start and More at Four.
But vouchers cause the most sparks, with Perdue running television ads attacking McCrory for his support for them.
The candidates are going to talk more about their plans today when they answer questions at a forum sponsored by an education think tank based in Raleigh.
McCrory said in an interview he supports “selective use of vouchers as a form of scholarship for special needs students,” but has not worked out how students could qualify, how much it would cost, or how the state would provide the money. McCrory said he has not developed a detailed proposal because he does not consider vouchers a priority.
Perdue rejects vouchers, saying they will take money out of the public system to support students from wealthier families who make up the cost between the voucher amounts and private school tuition.
“To rip that money out of the heart of the public schools goes directly against the concept of what the governor should do,” she said.
Vouchers are a traditional Democrat-Republican divide in North Carolina. Perdue has used the issue to question McCrory's commitment to public education. Her campaign has run ads attacking McCrory for his support for vouchers, saying they would cost the state $900 million.
That dollar figure assumes, though, that every student home schooled or enrolled in private school in North Carolina would get a voucher. That would be a much more extensive program than is available in any other state.
About 20 voucher programs exist in 14 states, said Jeff Reed, director of the education task force at the American Legislative Exchange Council, a nonpartisan association for conservative lawmakers.
Programs where parents can take tax credits for private education are typically limited to disabled or disadvantaged students in failing schools, Reed said. No state has a universal voucher program.
McCrory says you can't offer vouchers to everyone.
“There's a way to introduce vouchers in areas where schools are failing or where there are special needs students where the public schools can't meet their needs,” he said.
McCrory has consistently supported vouchers, but his talk of limiting them is new. During the Republican primary this year, McCrory pitched vouchers as a way he would increase competition among schools and offer parents more choices.
“The more competition we have, the more choice you have in education, the better our education is going to be for our kids,” McCrory told a Hendersonville crowd in March. “And parents must have these choices both with charter schools, school vouchers and also more choice at the local school.”
McCrory argues that while Perdue is using the issue of vouchers against him, she supports a state law that gives taxpayer money to private colleges and universities that enroll North Carolina students. Perdue defends that use of taxpayer money, saying it does not interfere with the state constitutional guarantee of a free public education.
Mike Munger, the Libertarian candidate for governor, wants to use state lottery revenue to offer households $1,250 per child. This voucher could only be spent at a state-accredited school, or be taken as a tax credit when children are home schooled. Households in the 40 poorest counties would be the first to get vouchers.