NC in need of education governor

One of North Carolina’s great political distinctions has been its long series of “education governors” — leaders from both parties] who have championed strong investment and data-driven innovation in public education. The next few months might threaten that legacy.

Every N.C. governor in recent memory, from Democrats Terry Sanford, Jim Hunt and Mike Easley to Republicans Jim Holshouser and Jim Martin, owns great achievements improving our education system. Recently, Democrat Bev Perdue fought (unsuccessfully) to extend a sales tax to avoid more education cuts and vetoed education-slashing budgets.

These visionary governors have understood that an accessible university system is critical to North Carolina’s transition to a prosperous knowledge-based economy. And each of them has used his or her bully pulpit to push the state to invest more in education.

Their commitment is part of why our universities have a world-class reputation for excellence and affordability. It’s why we protest budget cuts and tuition hikes, mourn the loss of great leaders like Bill Friday and celebrate UNC-CH being ranked the best college bargain in America.

In his 2012 campaign Pat McCrory emphasized in his education plan that North Carolina could not keep “simply spending more money on a broken system.”

As the conservative John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy pointed out then, McCrory’s platform “heralds the shift to lower spending levels as a new, permanent, frugal reality” and “even challenges the long-held belief that the state needs to send more students to higher education.”

The Pope Center believes that’s a good thing — but I’m skeptical.

According to the left-leaning N.C. Budget and Tax Center, the Republican-led General Assembly’s $682 million budget cut to the UNC system in spring 2011 already brought state appropriations for higher education compared to the size of the state’s economy down to a 40-year low.

The result has been deep cuts and higher tuition. The UNC Board of Governors’ strategic directions committee recommends the state invest an additional $199 million in the UNC system over the next five years.

Newly inaugurated McCrory will spend much of 2013 working with the legislature to produce the state’s budget. His deputy budget director is Art Pope, the conservative donor whose network of think tanks and advocacy groups has pushed to “starve the beast” of public higher education while privately funding academic programs rooted in right-wing ideology.

Meanwhile, McCrory is considering a proposal to considerably reduce or eliminate personal and corporate income taxes. This loss of revenue would create a lose-lose proposition: radically shrink state government (and therefore the UNC system) or shift the tax burden to lower-income families.

Some of his ideas for education have merit — but I’m afraid we no longer have an education governor to protect UNC.

Thanks for reading.

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