Is Mike Easley America’s greatest education governor? The National Education Association (NEA) recently said so and honored the North Carolina Governor for “his achievements in transforming North Carolina’s public school system.” Before we send our congratulatory letters, let’s look at the record.
Governor Easley has certainly succeeded in diverting more resources to public education. Over the past eight years, Easley has helped boost state appropriations for K-12 education from $5.8 billion in 2001 to $7.8 billion in 2008, an increase of 35 percent. Per student expenditures have increased from $6,650 to approximately $8,000 per student over the same period.
Easley has also been an outspoken proponent of raising teacher salaries. During Easley’s tenure, average teacher salaries increased from $41,500 to $47,350. Easley has also been a strong supporter of ABC bonuses ($750 million has been allocated over the past eight years) for teachers and staff from schools that meet expected growth targets. The Governor has also been an advocate for programs like More at Four, a statewide pre-school program for at-risk children and Learn and Earn, an initiative that allows high school students to gain college credits free of charge while enrolled in high school.
The increase in education spending is undeniable. It’s all been part of the Governor’s plan to turn around an ailing public school system. However, it hasn’t worked. North Carolina’s dropout rate is still one of the highest in the nation. It hasn’t moved appreciably in eight years. Today, only 67 percent of eligible high school students graduate with a diploma. Rates for Hispanics (54 percent) and African Americans (58 percent) are far lower than the statewide average.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2006-07 nineteen percent of public schools are in “Need of Improvement.” Only 45 percent of North Carolina schools are “Making Adequate Yearly Progress,” compared to 74 percent nationally. Such results are all the more disappointing considering the progress tests are designed and administered by North Carolina public schools. Over the past eight years, North Carolina scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) in key areas like math, reading and writing have declined slightly, been flat or registered only modest increases. North Carolina SAT scores for verbal and math tests have also failed to show marked improvement. Verbal scores actually declined four points (506 to 502). Math scores increased slightly from 514 to 515. North Carolina students still lag the national average by thirteen points.
NEA praises Governor Easley for his foresight in creating new programs like More at Four and Learn and Earn. These programs have their supporters, but many think they are misguided and wasteful. Costs for More at Four ($4,600 per student) have risen rapidly, yet the program lacks strong evidence that it is working. Learn and Earn, a program that provides opportunities for high school students to earn college credits free of charge, has also drawn criticism. Since administrators are hesitant to turn away applicants, many suspect Learn and Earn students are increasingly drawn from the ranks of middle and upper middle class students, — a fact noticeably at odds with the program’s purported goal of helping low income and first generation college students.
Yes, Governor Easley has succeeded in raising teacher salaries and funneling billions more in tax dollars to North Carolina schools. The truth is however, the money hasn’t produced the desired results. Nearly one-third of all students are performing below grade level in math and reading. One-third of all students fail to graduate. More than half our students are performing below national standards. Fewer than half of North Carolina schools are meeting Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) standards for No Child Left Behind. Are these signs of a healthy public school system? Are these signs of an innovative and effective Governor?
A December 2007 Civitas DecisionMaker Poll said 67 percent of voters think government does only a “fair” or “poor” job of spending taxpayer dollars on K-12 education in North Carolina. Moreover, a June 2008 Civitas DecisionMaker Poll found over a third of respondents (36 percent) thought the North Carolina K-12 education system was worse than other states. There are many proven ways to effectively reform and improve public education in our state. Charter schools, tax credits, alternative certification programs and expanded authority for principals are a few of the proven solutions that could provide public schools immediate help. Unfortunately, Governor Easley’s consistent opposition to these efforts underscores his aversion to true education reform and his strong support for teachers unions and their goal of maintaining control over public education.
Is Governor Easley the “greatest education” governor in America? Let’s remember Governor Easley’s support for teachers unions has delivered votes at election time and millions in campaign contributions. Let’s also remember the Governor’s unfailing support for teachers unions, his efforts to thwart education reform and a public education system reeling from staggering costs, low student achievement and flagging public confidence. Greatest education governor? You make the call.