Five questions for McCrory, Perdue on education

Today marks a signal moment in the 2008 campaign for governor of North Carolina. As Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, and Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, a Republican, face off in a gubernatorial candidate debate, they owe the nearly 6 million voters of North Carolina a comprehensive explanation of how they propose to improve public education.

They'll answer questions about education, explain their platforms and even get the chance to challenge one another at a forum sponsored by the Everybody's Business Education Coalition. That includes the N.C. Association of School Administrators, the N.C. Chamber, the N.C. Council of Chambers of Commerce, the N.C. School Boards Association and the Public School Forum of N.C. It will be broadcast statewide tonight on UNC-TV stations at 10 p.m.

While the next governor faces a long list of important issues, N.C. voters regard education as among the most critical. There are dozens of education issues to be dealt with, but here's a short list of questions vital to the future of the state. Candidates for governor – indeed, candidates for lieutenant governor, Council of State and the General Assembly – must tell voters where they stand on these key challenges:

1. North Carolina's appalling dropout rate. How can N.C. schools retain more students and boost the high school graduation rate? Should the state's resources be focused on elementary education, when teachers first spot students who have trouble with arithmetic or reading? Or in middle school when it's most evident which students are likely to leave? Or in high school when there's one last chance to keep them in school? And what about raising the minimum dropout age from 16 to 17 or 18?

2. School funding. The N.C. Supreme Court has ruled that the state must repay local schools the fines and civil penalties collected for various violations, and Judge Howard Manning has said that cost is $750 million. But legislative leaders say any such payment will come out of existing school funding. Is it right for the state to take money from the schools budget to repay the schools? And what about other critical school funding needs, such as raising teacher salaries to keep them near the national average? What about paying teachers more if they teach math and science – areas with an insufficient number of teachers – or in high-poverty, low-performing schools that have difficulty attracting effective teachers? Should the state restore full funding of teacher bonuses cut by the 2008 legislature?

3. Are schools rigorous enough? North Carolina requires 180 instructional days, among the shorter school calendars in the industrialized world. But competing time demands, such as for teacher preparation, sometimes shorten those days, and it's not clear that students get all the classroom instructional time they need. Should the state lengthen its instructional calendar? Should the state scrap the law that prevents school from starting before late August so as not to interfere with family vacations?

4. School vouchers. Would giving parents vouchers or tax credits for students in private schools or home schooling improve or degrade public schools? What would be the impact on individual schools' budgets and enrollment?

5. The constitutional guarantee. The N.C. Supreme Court has ruled in a landmark case that every school must have a competent principal, every classroom must have a trained, competent teacher and students in every classroom should have the resources to get a sound basic education. But all the available evidence indicates that constitutional guarantee has not been met. How should the state make sure North Carolina schools comply with the Supreme Court's mandate?

The next governor must have explicit plans to address these and other pressing education issues. As voters, we must demand the candidates talk about those plans now. Sound bites and catchy phrases won't do.

The continued prosperity of the state and its residents, and the futures of our children, depend on how well our political leaders tackle this matter.