Capital Goods: September 2013

Business changes course on education

From 1997 to 2003, the CEO of the state’s chief business lobbying group — back then called North Carolina Citizens for Business and Industry, now the North Carolina Chamber — chaired the state Board of Education. Phil Kirk, a former Republican state senator who had worked for two Republican governors and a Republican U.S. senator, occasionally faced criticism for potential conflicts of interest. But his dual role was 
a tangible sign of the business community’s commitment to improving public education in the state. A decade later, some wonder if that support has withered.

For example, the UNC system, former UNC Wilmington Chancellor Jim Leutze recently wrote, was built with the business community’s backing, which it could depend on. “It lost that support in approximately 2006,” he added. His criticism follows a legislative session in which the General Assembly approved a tax overhaul that eventually will carve at least $600 million — perhaps as much as $800 million a year — from a $20 billion general operating budget. The Republican majority continued to trim money from the education budget and made major changes in policy, including eliminating teacher tenure, approving a $4,200 voucher for children to attend private schools and delivering a final blow to a popular scholarship program for teachers. The budget also eliminates 4,500 teaching-assistant positions and does away with requirements related to the teacher-student ratios that drove school funding in the past.

The significance of another round of budget-cutting depends on one’s perspective. Year-over-year, spending for K-12 schools, community colleges and the UNC system increases 3.6%. But when measured against the state’s “continuation budget,” which calculates expected spending growth based on inflation and rises in enrollment, it’s cut about 2%. The university system’s budget is flat even when calculated on a year-over-year basis.

Sen. Jerry Tillman, a Randolph County Republican who played a key role in assembling the education budget, dismissed talk of dismantling public education by noting that no schools have closed and predicted fall hiring would prove teaching posts have not contracted and no teachers would lose jobs. He may be right, but the budget cuts and policy shifts have critics calling the session anti-teacher and anti-public education. Lawmakers again provided no raises for teachers and stripped extra pay for those who earn advanced degrees. This, in effect, tells teachers the legislature isn’t interested in a quality educational workforce, according to state Schools Superintendent June Atkinson and the North Carolina Association of Educators, the largest teachers group.

Atkinson and teachers raised a ruckus, but business leaders were mostly silent — this in a state where they once prodded public schools and universities toward innovation and accountability. In the session’s final months, North Carolina Chamber President Lew Ebert spoke at a single committee meeting, where he endorsed a Senate tax-overhaul plan that would have cut even more money than the one ultimately approved.

This can be interpreted a couple of ways. One is that business leaders, like many Republican legislators, no longer believe in the traditional public-school model. They see innovation and reform coming not from internal change but from outside pressure. As for the universities, they have gotten by with less public investment and higher tuition and legislators expect them to continue to do so without any real effect on the quality of the workforce they’re producing.

A more likely explanation involves looking at how the state’s business leadership has changed. Even as NCNB became NationsBank and then Bank of America and Carolina Power & Light turned into Progress Energy, their executives still looked out for the state most of them called home. While their business became regional, national and even global, they had been reared and educated here. Most of their customers were in this state.

That isn’t the case today. Top business leaders have fewer long-standing ties to North Carolina. Their gaze extends elsewhere. Sure, they might support a state-based education-policy group or pony up for a chamber-sponsored forum on schools. But is that the same thing as a commitment to public education?  

   
Scott Mooneyham is editor of The Insider, www.ncinsider.com. Email him at smooneyh@ncinsider.com.