In this May 2019 file photo, teachers march to protest school funding shortfalls in North Carolina. (Image via Shutterstock) Educators protesting NC General Assembly
In this May 2019 file photo, teachers march to protest school funding shortfalls in North Carolina. (Image via Shutterstock)

Few issues have galvanized North Carolina politics more than public education in the last decade. Here’s how the roiling debate is driving the talk in four pivotal state Senate races.  

[Editor’s Note: As the 2020 election approaches, Cardinal & Pine is diving in to key state legislative races to talk about the issues, and where candidates stand. Read our exploration of Medicaid expansion in these four Senate races last week.]

There is nothing—save Rev. William Barber II’s “Moral Monday” protests near the state capitol—that has yielded the kind of passionate protest in North Carolina produced by the conversation about public education.

Since the 2008 economic recession and, subsequently, the Republican Party’s 2010 takeover of the state legislature, NC’s public schools have been troubled. Lawmakers imposed funding cuts. School choice rose in prominence. And the state’s once-vibrant teacher pipeline, a point of pride via nationally-recognized ventures such as the Teaching Fellows program, dried up as teacher salaries declined and legislators axed the Fellows program.

Where legislators stand on education funding, as well as regulation of the expanding charter and private school sectors, is as much a marker of political values these days as Medicaid expansion, as we discussed in our last “Cardinal Issues” report.

In the age of coronavirus, the debate over public education equity is as heated as ever, with the virus and the virtual reopenings of many school districts only highlighting or exacerbating the divide between the state’s richer and poorer counties. 

A lawmaker’s priorities on such issues are essential to understanding the types of laws they will write, and the types of budgets they will author. 

Today, we’re delving into key Senate races which could determine partisan control of the NC Senate and where the dueling candidates fall on public education.

NC Senate District 1: Sen. Bob Steinburg (R) v. Tess Judge (D)

Sen. Bob Steinburg, left, and Tess Judge, right

Steinburg, an Edenton Republican, calls himself a “committed advocate for North Carolina education,” emphasizing his involvement as a “book buddy” at a local elementary school to boost literacy. 

He is also a school choice advocate, recently co-sponsoring a controversial reform to the state’s private school voucher, or “opportunity scholarship,” program that would remove income eligibility requirements. Originally intended to help low-income families pay for private schools, the polarizing program has been generously funded by the state legislature.

Yet the voucher program, which has seen its budgeted funds grow each year, has been a particularly thorny issue in NC education. When adjusted for inflation, NC public schools saw a precipitous drop in funding in many state legislatures, including NC, in the last decade. Such drops occurred simultaneously with sharp increases in school choice spending in states like NC after lawmakers lifted charter school caps and approved private school vouchers. 

Steinburg’s opponent, Democrat Tess Judge, has indicated she sees investment in public education as a critical tool for boosting the economy in a portion of the state with relatively high poverty rates. 

“We need to continue to work so that our public schools are funded,” Judge told Cardinal & Pine. “And so that our community colleges and public universities get the proper funding.”

NC Senate District 11: Lisa Barnes (R) v. Allen Wellons (D)

Rep. Lisa Barnes, left, and Allen Wellons, right

Barnes is a state representative who is running for the Senate in a newly redrawn Senate District 11, which includes parts of Nash and Johnston counties. The GOP candidate, a school choice supporter, broadly characterizes herself as a backer of increased teacher pay too, a major point of conflict in Raleigh in recent years with many Republicans being shredded by teaching advocates for significant drops in pay and benefits when adjusted for inflation. Amid a series of large-scale teacher demonstrations in Raleigh, lawmakers approved a series of raises for educators that today rank the state 30th in the nation and second in the Southeast in teacher pay, although groups like the NC Association of Educators have been witheringly critical of the size and scale of those boosts.

As the NCAE has noted, teacher compensation still lags what it was prior to the 2008 recession when adjusted for inflation. Also, teachers’ raises last year were derailed by conflict between the legislature and Gov. Roy Cooper. Cooper vetoed the legislature’s agreed budget, which did include teacher raises, although Cooper’s proposal called for higher raises than lawmakers did.

Wellons, a Johnston County farmer and former state House legislator, notes that when he was in the legislature in the 1990s, he was an ally to then-Gov. Jim Hunt, dubbed “the education governor,” in raising public education investments. 

“In recent years, elected leaders in Raleigh have dropped the ball and forgotten their duty to the children of North Carolina,” Wellons says on his site. “In the Senate, Allen will fight to properly fund our local schools, ensuring students get a quality education and teachers have the resources they need to be successful.”

NC Senate District 24: Amy Galey (R) v. J.D. Wooten (D)

Amy Galey, left, and J.D. Wooten, right

Republican and Democratic candidates differ on so many issues, but school choice has been one of the clearest dividing lines in the last decade. Democrats have become increasingly critical of the role charters and private schools play in diverting funds from public schools and, according to researchers, exacerbating racial and economic segregation in schools. 

Galey, a Republican from Alamance County, has indicated support for choice, but she notes that as a local county commissioner she’s been a supporter of raising local teacher supplements and a school infrastructure bonds. 

Wooten, meanwhile, says education is one of his top priorities, connecting education investment to economic recovery. 

“We must put resources back into our schools to ensure quality education,” Wooten says on his site. “Our educators deserve better pay for the work they do, and increased pay will attract the next generation of great educators as well.  Everyone deserves a quality education, and it starts with funding quality education.”

 NC Senate District 31: Sen. Joyce Krawiec (R) v. Terri LeGrand (D)

Sen. Joyce Krawiec, left, and Terri LeGrand, right

Krawiec, a veteran lawmaker representing Davie and Forsyth counties, is an influential leader in a chamber that, nonetheless, has been considerably more reluctant than the House to fund public education requests during budget negotiations in the last decade. That chamber, including its leadership under Senate President Phil Berger, has often been bitterly at odds with educators. 

Krawiec is no exception. Although she says that she’s played a role in boosting teacher pay in the Senate, the lawmaker isn’t likely to please public education advocates with her involvement in school choice’s speedy expansion.

“I am proud to have played an active role in passing School Choice legislation,” Krawiec writes on her campaign site. “Parents can best determine where their children should attend school. Low income students can now attend private schools if the families so choose.”

Terri LeGrand, an attorney from Winston-Salem, says she is an advocate for “quality and equitable schools.”

“Terri will work to ensure that our schools are fully-funded, that our teachers are paid as the professionals that they are, that our schools are provided the repairs and improvements needed, and that our students have the services they deserve to succeed,” her site states.