NC governor, challenger respond to calls for public education priorities

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NC Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper, top left, and incumbent Gov. Pat McCrory sound off Friday on their plans to improve the states public education. The occasion was a press conference called by the NC Association of School Administrators and a group of about 50 superintendents.
NC Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper, top left, and incumbent Gov. Pat McCrory sound off Friday on their plans to improve the state’s public education. The occasion was a press conference called by the NC Association of School Administrators and a group of about 50 superintendents.

Addressing a crowd of his peers in town from across the state Friday, New Hanover County Schools superintendent Dr. Tim Markley said he hoped the visitors had gotten the chance to take in some area dining.

And, he added, if they had ventured to Jack Mackerel’s in Kure Beach, he hoped they were particularly friendly to the restaurant’s hostess, who also happens to be a local teacher’s assistant.

It was a personalized approach to a larger point – abysmally low educator pay – Markley and about 50 of his colleagues from NC districts hoped to make to lawmakers during a NC Association of School Administrators (NCASA) conference at the Wilmington Convention Center.

The association called on the conference to send a strong message to the General Assembly – ahead of the start of the next session on April 25 – about making public education a priority.

Gov. Pat McCrory was not in the audience to hear that message, arriving to the event after the superintendents’ laundry list of needs and ahead of the concluding remarks from his gubernatorial opponent, NC Attorney General Roy Cooper.

Top on that list was financial backing. Noting that NC is 46th in the nation for per-pupil funding, hovering around the same mark for experienced teacher pay and dead last in principal salaries, Markley said it was time for an “overhaul” and an across-the-board increase for all school staff.

It was a sentiment Cooper echoed when he took the podium. In a not-so-veiled crack at McCrory, Cooper said fixing public education would require more than a few politically advantageous and highly publicized handouts here and there.

“I want to get back to basics, and by that I mean the government needs to give you the basics you need to do your job,” he said. “We need a strategic plan to bring educator and teacher salaries above the national average, not just three years of a little progress and the promise of a five-percent raise in an election year.”

When it was his turn, McCrory touted a steady rise in pay he helped push through and cited the five-percent proposal he plans to put to lawmakers at the end of the month.

Pointing a finger at his predecessors Mike Easley and Beverly Perdue, McCrory said he came into office in 2013 to a public school system that had been slowly dismantled by prior decisions.

“Three years ago NC was broken,” he said, citing the state’s $2.6 billion federal unemployment debt, an abnormally high corporate tax rate and a mismanaged Medicaid system along with education woes. “You have to look at the big picture.”

In a decade, NC fell from 19th to 46th in teacher pay, McCrory said, arguing he has battled against that slow but significant drop by approving measures, like a 10 percent increase for starting teachers, that “were not done in election years.”

Under his watch, NC schools have also gotten more WiFi availability, and graduation rates have been on the rise, up to 85 percent from 2013’s 82 percent.

But Cooper said the numbers aren’t aligning with what he hears directly from the educators and parents he regularly talks with face-to-face.

“You know and I know that over the last few years, public education has hit hard times. You know it acutely,” he told the audience.

Cooper said he has seen the impact everywhere of de-funding public school resources – often in favor of paying out money in private school vouchers and charter schools – from the teacher “pulling money out her pocket to pay for supplies” to a mother rallying other parents to help out in a first-grade class that lost its teacher assistant due to budget cuts.

And, he added, if you listen to those affected, it’s clear that figures aren’t all that factor into the current state of our classrooms.

“What I’m hearing from teachers time and again – obviously, number one is pay – but, and perhaps more importantly, is lack of respect. And they aren’t feeling that from the community or parents but from this governor and the legislative leadership.”

Among NCASA’s other recommended legislative priorities for the upcoming short session is a change to the current A-F grading system, a system oft criticized for mislabeling schools showing growth but falling short of a set achievement level. And the organization would like to narrow the recruitment gap with legislation that would make it easier for out-of-state educators to teach in NC without having to undergo stringent state licensure mandates.

Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at hilary.s@portcitydaily.com.