The two major candidates for governor both stress linking businesses and schools to make sure students graduate with the skills they need to land a job. Republican Pat McCrory and Democrat Walter Dalton also want to strengthen education in the early years. But they favor different paths to get there.
Campaign season is full of promises even to the smallest constituents. These Charlotte pre-schoolers have big plans for their futures. Dalton sits cross-legged among them. A few of them tell him they want to be Batman and Spiderman.
“All those things you want to be, you can be anything you want to be if you work really hard in school,” Dalton tells his young audience.
This pre-kindergarten class at the First Ward Child Development Center serves mainly poor children to make sure they’re ready for kindergarten. This is a big part of Dalton’s education strategy. He wants to begin restoring some of the deep cuts to the state’s pre-k program, as well as cuts to schools and community colleges. Gradually raising teacher pay to the national average, which was $56,000 last year, is also part of his plan.
“When I was an appropriations chair in the senate, there was a point in time when we reached the national average, I think, on teacher pay,” says Dalton. “We need to get back into that mode and treat our teachers as the professionals that they are. Pay them a professional wage.”
Dalton expects his plan will cost the state an additional $626 million in the first year. His plan to fund it involves pushing mail-order companies like Amazon to pay state sales tax and removing a $3,500 tax break to most businesses. Instead, he wants to limit that tax break to small businesses.
“They gave a break they said to small business, but it was far beyond small business. People making hundreds of thousands of dollars got a tax credit they did not ask for. These were people that were not hurting in the current economy,” says Dalton.
For his part, McCrory says the state can’t afford Dalton’s ideas. Instead, he wants to focus money on first through third grades to make sure kids are reading at grade level. If kids aren’t reading at grade level by the end of third grade, they’ll be held back. The idea is to make sure they have the basics early on.
That legislation has already been passed. It’s part of changes pushed by national Republican leaders, including the former Governor of Florida, Jeb Bush. He’s appeared on the campaign trail with McCrory several times.
“Hopefully, I had some influence in getting that done and I’m very proud of the legislature doing that,” says McCrory. “But now we got to put in place the necessary resources and the curriculum and the strategy to make it happen.”
So where do the extra resources come then?
“We’re going to have to share these resources because there isn’t any new money,” says McCrory.
He gives community colleges as an example. McCrory suggests reducing their budget for remedial classes and instead give that to k-12 schools, so they can “get it right the first time.” He points to what he sees as different education priorities between the house, senate, and governor’s office.
“I hear this as I’m running for Governor and I’m going, ‘Wait a minute, you’re all on the same team,’” says McCrory. “We need to start working together as a transparent process where we’re sharing resources. We’re making sure there’s not duplication and we’re making sure that we’re working to get our kids not just an education, but a job after they get an education.”
Both McCrory and Dalton agree schools need to coordinate better with businesses to make sure students are prepared for the jobs companies need. Dalton wants to see the expansion of what are called early college high schools. There are 70 of them in the state and they target kids whose parents have never been to college. They allow students to combine high school studies with career training and earn up to two years of college credit tuition-free.
“If you erased all of education and re-drew it, you would not draw a traditional four-year high school. You’d have more of these five year programs that give the basics to the kids, but also help create a life skill for them that would be marketable for them in the economy,” says Dalton.
As a state senator he sponsored a law to start these schools which many states have used as models.
But McCrory envisions high schools that offer two types of diplomas. One geared to a college curriculum, the other to vocational studies.
“Where I hear from teachers is that we’re force feeding many kids into a college curriculum when they’re not interested in that college curriculum and then they drop out,” says McCrory. “They might have skills in technical, mechanical, electrical repair type areas which are desperately needed in our economy and, frankly, pay more than some kids that are graduating from law school right now.”
If McCrory wins, he’ll likely deal with a Republican legislature. Dalton, on the hand, says he expects to have to use the office as a bully pulpit to push his agenda.