The North Carolina Influencer Series

NC Influencers say state needs to give schools enough money and close achievement gap

More from the series

The North Carolina Influencer series

The Charlotte Observer, The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun in Durham are launching a conversation between readers and important thought leaders throughout North Carolina.

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Public schools need to receive adequate funding to ensure the continued health of North Carolina, according to a new survey of some of the state’s most influential leaders.

A group of 60 North Carolina Influencers — comprised of leaders in the state’s political, business, academic and faith communities — were asked about the importance of 14 different education topics. Nearly all the Influencers listed adequate funding as being very important, saying that taking care of that issue would help solve a variety of other problems affecting the state’s K-12 education system.

“While many of these issues are very important, adequate funding is the most important,” said Pamela Davies, president of Queens University of Charlotte. “If NC was funding K-12 education appropriately, many deficiencies in our system, including teacher pay and Pre-K, could be addressed.

“However, money alone is not the answer. Strong leadership, both in the system and in the school house, is imperative if we are to deliver the quality of education the children of North Carolina deserve.”

After adequate funding, the 57 Influencers who responded listed closing the racial achievement gap and increasing teacher pay as their next two highest concerns. Making schools safer, creating universal pre-K, boosting vocational education and closing the rural-urban divide were also rated as very important by at least half the respondents.

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Topics such as reducing class size, reducing use of standardized testing and expanding or reducing charter schools and school vouchers drew less support in the survey.

The funding issue comes at a time when state lawmakers have raised K-12 education funding to record levels and sharply raised teacher pay, especially for beginning teachers. But critics say education funding hasn’t risen enough and, when adjusted for inflation, is actually less than what it was before the recession in the late 2000s.

Around 19,000 teachers marched in downtown Raleigh in May to demand that state lawmakers do more to support public education.

“At all governmental levels we must adequately fund K-12 education,” said Webb Hubbell of Charlotte, an author and former Clinton Administration member. “Today’s society asks so much more from our schools and educators, and their importance needs to be reflected in the allocation of our resources.”

But not all Influencers agreed that lack of money is the problem for the state’s K-12 schools.

“Regardless of the party in control of the General Assembly, the default solution for schools has been to throw money at the problem,” said Paul Valone of Catawba, president of Grass Roots North Carolina. “Even under Republican control, pressure from the NCAE, the media, and ostensibly ‘progressive’ activists has led Republicans, who fear public pressure, to relent to essentially left-of-center solutions.”

The achievement gap

Closing the racial achievement gap was rated as very important by more than three-quarters of the survey respondents. For decades, public schools have tried to address why African American and Hispanic students perform lower on exams, on average, than white and Asian classmates.

“Eliminating the achievement gap is critical to providing the superior workforce needed to compete in the world economy,” said former Gov. Mike Easley. “Addressing the gap will entail more Pre-K, teacher pay, and funding for the rural divide.”

Virginia Hardy, vice chancellor of student affairs at East Carolina University, said that while there’s been some improvement in closing the racial achievement gap, much work still needs to be done.

“The longstanding educational inequalities continue to adversely impact black students’ performance today,” Hardy said. “If we are to break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy, and social injustices, then we must level the educational playing field.”

A range of responses

The Influencers were asked to give their opinion about the overall direction of K-12 education in North Carolina over the past decade. Responses ran across the spectrum, with many citing how the legislature expanded the number of charter schools and provided taxpayer money to help families attend private K-12 schools.

“Over the past decade, the North Carolina General Assembly has made education one of its top priorities, ensuring every student has an opportunity to succeed,” said Madison Shook of Raleigh, a GOP fundraiser. “It’s passed policies — paving the way for more charter schools and opportunity scholarships, to name a just a couple — that increase choice and flexibility for parents and children and prioritize the instruction of students based on their individual needs.”

But that expansion of alternatives to traditional public schools worries some Influencers.

“As a product of the public school system, our state commitment to public education has been really important to me,” said Ashley Christensen of Raleigh, a chef, restaurateur, food activist and philanthropist. “And I fear that many of the new systems like vouchers and lifting the cap on charter schools have been to the detriment of our public school system as a whole.

“I am open minded to the idea of new platforms and systems for giving parents and children more choice over their education, but not at the expense of the system overall.”

‘Great equalizer’

In a reader-submitted question, Influencers were asked what policymakers should do to ensure that all students have access to quality schools that prepare them for well-paying 21st century jobs.

“Continue to treat public education as our number one priority, as it is the ‘great equalizer’ for most of our children, whose futures are dependent upon how well our public schools prepare them,” answered former Charlotte mayor Richard Vinroot.

This is the second in a series of surveys The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun will conduct with the Influencers through the November elections to help focus media and candidate discussion around the policy issues of most importance to North Carolinians. Look for the next report in two weeks.

News researcher David Raynor contributed.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui