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Commentary: Lessons to Be Learned From Others

For many years I used North Carolina as a state that I thought Virginia should emulate. As another southern state, North Carolina was showing Virginia up in its commitment to improving the quality of life of its residents through investments, particularly in education. North Carolina’s appropriation for its university system was at least quadruple the amount per student as Virginia’s. Its preschool program was a model for the country. The state recognized early the importance of the high technology industries and was very successful in attracting new businesses to the Research Triangle.

Unfortunately all that has changed! I now hold North Carolina up as an example of what Virginia should avoid. What happened to bring about the changes? There were a series of elections in which moderates apparently stayed home and Tea Party candidates were very successful. Under the new leadership in their legislative and executive branches, the accomplishments of the past are considered too much government and too costly. What were once considered investments are now dealt with as unnecessary costs. For those who take pride in our public schools and colleges and universities in Virginia, we need to take note in this election year of whether we want to turn back the clock on our educational system as North Carolina is doing.

The 2013 North Carolina education budget eliminates 9,306 education positions including 5,184 teachers, 3,850 teacher assistants and 272 support personnel (guidance counselors, psychologists, etc.) at a time when the number of students continues to increase. No pay increase is provided for teachers. In 2007-08 North Carolina was ranked 25th in the nation in teacher pay; this year it is 46th and heading downward. Teachers who get advanced degrees will get no additional pay. The state’s Teaching Fellows program that was once considered a model for the nation for recruiting teachers is no longer funded. At the same time that these and other massive cuts were being made to public education, legislators somehow found $50 million to provide vouchers to those attending private schools.

Slashing education has been only a part of the changes. Taxes were cut on the top 5 percent while raising taxes on the bottom 95 percent. Voting now requires a government issued ID card; voting hours have been cut and same-day registration has been eliminated. A landmark clean water program was slashed. Guns are now allowed on playgrounds and in bars.

Could these kinds of changes happen in Virginia? Over the last few years the state’s commitment to public education has been slipping. While education is considered to be a partnership between state and local governments in Virginia, the 50 percent share of costs has slipped to 40 percent from the state with local governments having to make cuts or make up the difference. Pay close attention to the candidates for statewide office. Those who promise a big tax cut will pay for it in part from school funding. Large voucher programs will take money from public schools. Other bills like those passed in North Carolina have been proposed here. Let’s learn from North Carolina and not follow its example! Get out and vote on Nov. 5.