Josh Stein shares his vision for North Carolina ahead of primary

Photo: AP/Karl B DeBlaker

By Dylan Rhoney

March 1, 2024

Josh Stein says he’ll work to raise teacher pay, increase funding for public schools, create more opportunities in rural North Carolina, and protect the state against further abortion restrictions.

Voters will head to the polls on Tuesday, where they’ll cast their ballots in the North Carolina primary elections, determining which candidates advance to November’s general election. Near the very top of voters’ ballots will appear their party’s candidates for governor. 

On the Democratic side of the aisle, Josh Stein, the state’s attorney general, is seeking the party’s nomination for governor. He recently spoke with Cardinal & Pine about some of the key issues facing the state, including low teacher pay, how the expansion of school vouchers could impact public schools, how he plans to bring economic opportunity to rural communities, and how the election could impact the future of abortion rights in the state.


Stein calls for investing in education and raising teacher pay

Stein said that public education will be a signature issue for him, if elected, and talked extensively about the many crises facing North Carolina public schools and the importance of protecting and investing in education.

“To me, education is what has distinguished North Carolina over the last 50 years. It’s what has enabled us to really get to the top of the list of thriving southern states,” he said.

Stein believes that strong public schools are necessary to prepare students for both college and the workforce.

“If they want to start college after they start high school, they can go and do a great job, and learn, and continue to grow. Or, if they want to start their career, then they can get a good paying job, and provide for their family. Because not everyone should have to go to college to provide for their family,” Stein said.

One major issue facing North Carolina public schools is the shortage of teachers. At the beginning of the current school year, there were 2,840 recorded K-12 teacher vacancies in the state.

 It’s a persistent problem, and a  main cause of it is a lack of respect, and the lack of valuing our public school teachers,” Stein said.

North Carolina ranks 46th in the nation for starting teacher pay, 34th in average teacher pay, and is one of the worst states in the country for overall K-12 investment.

Stein said he will push the legislature to raise teacher salaries and emphasized that properly compensating teachers is essential to North Carolina’s continued success.

“This is a North Carolina issue. This is how we’re going to prepare the workforce to meet the needs of a fast-changing, global economy, and we need good teachers to help do that work, and that’s the case I’m going to make every day as governor, to the legislature.”

If Stein wins the Democratic nomination, he will likely face Lt. Governor Mark Robinson, the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, in the general election. Robinson has made countless inflammatory remarks against  women, the LGBTQ community, and educators. 

“Mark Robinson, the lieutenant governor, my likely opponent, called public school teachers ‘wicked people’. It’s just an unfathomable way of looking at the world,” Stein told Cardinal & Pine.


The dangers of private school voucher expansion

Over the last 10 years, the Republican-controlled legislature has continually expanded access to publicly-funded private school vouchers. In 2013, the General Assembly established the Opportunity Scholarship, which allows parents to use a stipend based on household income for private school tuition.

Since then, the criteria to qualify for the scholarship has been expanded. Last year, the legislature drastically increased funding for the program, allowing for a maximum scholarship of $7,213. The wealthiest families are also able to apply for up to $3,246 of public funds per child in the latest incarnation of the program. The program could wind up costing the state half-a-billion dollars by 2030, according to estimates. 

The diverting of these funds concerns Stein, given the cost it takes to properly staff and run public schools.

“We need every marginal dollar we can find in the budget to invest in our public schools and make sure we have good teachers, strong principals, and sufficient support staff,” Stein said. “School nurses, school counselors, school social workers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers. All those folks need to be adequately compensated and they need the resources and materials to help our kids succeed.” 

Stein expressed concern about the impact this funding could have on public schools, particularly in rural communities. 

“When you have a program like vouchers, which actually sucks money out of the public schools, and makes it harder—particularly for the smaller rural counties that don’t have the same tax base as Wake County or Mecklenburg County—to offset the losses that will come from the vouchers. It really puts those rural communities behind the eight ball.”


Expanding opportunities to rural North Carolina

From 2010-2020, all 50 counties that saw population decline in North Carolina were rural. 

Following the Covid-19 pandemic, however, many rural counties—particularly in Western North Carolina—saw a degree of population increase. Stein wants to keep that going by investing in rural communities and increasing opportunities for residents.

Stein believes that the recruitment effort the state has made to attract global companies like Toyota, which will create over 5,000 jobs and invest almost $14 billion dollars in their Randolph County battery plant, will provide long-term benefits to surrounding communities. He also noted the number of electric vehicle manufacturers that have created jobs in the state.

“Four of the top 10 business expansions last year were electric battery manufacturers, with Toyota being the big trophy.”

Chatham County is one of the big benefactors of the recent job growth.

“We have Wolfspeed doing silicon carbide chip manufacturing in Chatham County. We have VinFast, an EV manufacturer, also in Chatham.”

The establishment of electric vehicle manufacturers and chip makers in North Carolina highlights the changing nature of the state, and its transition into the 21st century.

“Fifty years ago, we were very heavily dependent on tobacco, on textiles, and on furniture. Now we’ve got biotech, we’ve got finance, we’ve got information technology, we’re now expanding EV manufacturing,” Stein said.

Stein believes that by embracing what he calls the “industries of the future,” the state could be poised for even greater opportunities which would give rural North Carolinians the option to thrive in their hometown communities.

“If we continue this transition to a clean energy economy, and position North Carolina into the future, then we can continue to have great opportunities available to people. So, if somebody wants to make their life in Morganton, they can do that. And that’s what I want for people. People should be able to stay in their hometown, if that’s where they want to raise their family.”


Democrats must win up and down the ballot to protect abortion rights

The Republican supermajority in the North Carolina General Assembly last year passed a 12-week abortion ban, with exceptions for rape and incest up to 20 weeks, for “life-limiting” fetal anomalies up to 24 weeks, and to save the life of the mother throughout the pregnancy. The law also added several barriers to abortion care, including as many as three in-person office visits for medication abortions, and in-person counseling 72 hours before all abortions.

Many Republicans, including Robinson, have expressed support for a total abortion ban, making Stein’s race a crucial one. But given the Republican supermajority in the legislature—and gerrymandered maps that all but guarantee they remain in power—Democrats can’t just bank on Stein to win to prevent a further erosion of reproductive freedom. 

“Winning the governorship is a necessary, but insufficient success. We have to win important races on the Council of State, including attorney general. We have to win judgeship races, including the Supreme Court, and we have to break the supermajority,” Stein said. 


Stein says he’ll work with the Legislature

Stein acknowledged that it is likely that even if Democrats break the GOP supermajority, the Republicans will still hold the majority when the new governor takes office next January. 

“I do think it’s a likely outcome that Republicans will have the majority of the General Assembly, even if we break the supermajority. It will make it important that we find goals that we share, and then work together to try to advance those shared goals.”

Stein highlighted his success working with the legislature to pass laws to help North Carolinians, and believes bipartisanship is still possible on some issues.

“As Attorney General, I’ve worked with the legislature to modernize our laws protecting kids from child sex abuse. I’ve worked with the legislature to tackle the opioid crisis. I’ve worked with the legislature to eliminate the backlog of untested rape kits. I’ve worked with the legislature to strengthen our system of public safety to make it both more effective and fair in the way it treats people,” Stein said. “It is possible to get things done together, even in these partisan times. It’s a matter of identifying these issues, and understanding that they’re not red issues, and they’re not blue issues. They’re North Carolina issues, and working with people with people of good will, no matter if they’re Democratic, Republican, or Unaffiliated.”



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