RALEIGH — The major-party candidates for North Carolina governor agree that public schools and colleges must improve the link between what students study and the job skills demanded of local and international employers looking to expand.
"In today's world, we're not going to out-recruit any other state or any other country unless we out-educate them," Democrat Walter Dalton said. The lieutenant governor led a commission that examined curriculum and workforce issues and recommended better use of specialty high schools.
Republican Pat McCrory says companies tell him they'd love to hire more people, but can't find qualified applicants. North Carolina's September unemployment rate of 9.6 percent was the fifth-highest in the nation.
"As long as that is happening, I believe there's a disconnect between the educational institutions and our employers," McCrory, the former Charlotte mayor, said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
But McCrory and Dalton disagree on whether North Carolina provides the appropriate framework to ensure students are equipped to enter the workforce or get a college degree, or if a marked education overhaul is needed.
Although high school graduation rates in North Carolina's public schools are now above 80 percent compared to 70 percent five years ago, McCrory says the current educational system is still failing students. He points to the percentage of college students who must take remedial courses. McCrory also wants a greater emphasis on vocational education and charter schools and paying teachers based on student performance.
Dalton, however, said education policies pushed by Democrats in recent decades, blended with innovative efforts such as early college high schools he helped expand while in the state Senate, are creating largely positive results when they're funded at suitable levels.
Dalton said the Republican-led Legislature's decision to reduce overall education funding by $900 million in the 2011-12 fiscal year laid off teachers and denied thousands of university students financial aid. He said he's got a plan to restore cuts over time and raise teacher salaries to the national average without raising tax rates.
"People don't like the education cuts and I want to repair those education cuts," Dalton told the AP.
McCrory, who served as Charlotte mayor until 2009, said the state's education system is in a better position today compared to when Republicans took over the Legislature because the state is more solvent. GOP legislators say Democrats have overstated the effects of the cuts on classroom instruction.
The state spends about $11 billion annually on the public schools, the University of North Carolina system and the community college system, or 55 percent of the state budget.
McCrory said he's not critical of everything done by previous Democratic governors and the Legislature. He even complimented Dalton's efforts to expand early college programs, which allow students to get both a high school diploma and two years of college in five years.
"There's been some piecemeal moves," McCrory said, "but our competition is doing so much more."
McCrory's wants to create two types of high school diplomas — one certifying a student is college-ready and another that certifies the student is ready for an outside career. Keeping to a theme from his unsuccessful 2008 gubernatorial bid, McCrory said too many young people would make a better living as a plumber or electrician instead of getting a bachelor's degree.
Dalton said he supports a greater emphasis on vocational education, too, but calls McCrory's idea a "tracking system" that "defines a 15-year-old's career before that 15-year-old has defined him or herself. That's not right."
Dalton and McCrory said they are fine with increasing the number of charter schools in North Carolina, although Dalton wasn't pleased with how the Legislature eliminated the 100-school cap in place since the mid-1990s.
Dalton said state education officials should be more deliberate in issuing charters to schools where innovative teaching methods will be tested and later mimicked in other schools. McCrory said he wants a more aggressive schedule for opening new charters because thousands of students remain on waiting lists to enter them.
Dalton has accused McCrory of backing "vouchers," which often refer to public money or tax breaks given to parents so students can attend private or parochial schools. McCrory told the AP he supports giving scholarships in the short term to help students who have disabilities or are struggling academically and aren't getting their needs met in the public schools. Last year the Legislature approved a tax credit of up to $6,000 a year for parents to recoup costs of educating special-needs children in a private school.
Libertarian candidate Barbara Howe supports giving tax credits to any taxpayer who wants to subsidize or pay for an individual student's tuition at any kind of private school. She said government-run schools would still exist and meet the current obligations within the North Carolina state constitution to maintain the right for an education. Competition will improve education overall, she said.
"When the education dollars are freed up and parents are in charge, not the bureaucrats in Raleigh or Washington," Howe said, "there's going to be a vast market of education opportunities."