An education system that fails to prepare students for a modern economy is the most crippling issue for North Carolinians, according to a new survey of some of the state’s most influential people.
Compounding matters, they said, are tensions among voters across the political spectrum.
"Too many people would rather win a debate (or election) by demonizing the other party. Instead, we should encourage civil conversation where people respectfully disagree, but can learn from each other and try to find common ground for solutions," said survey respondent Art Pope, a prominent businessman and donor to conservative causes.
A group of 60 North Carolina Influencers — comprised of leaders in the state’s political, business, academic and faith communities — were asked about the importance of each of 16 topics to the state’s future. The topics included terrorism, the opioid crisis, gerrymandering, education, health care and immigration, among others.
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The 57 influencers who responded listed the state's K-12 public schools as the top concern by a comfortable margin, with "jobs and the economy" second. Next important were "polarization in government and society" and "availability of health care and insurance." Race relations rounded out the influencers' top five most important issues.
Topics of less concern to the influencers were the environment, terrorism, LGBTQ rights, transportation and the size of government.
Prioritizing public schools
Public school funding has been in the news recently as state lawmakers crafted their budget. Teachers and advocates marched through downtown Raleigh to demand more education funding.
Since then, Republicans touted raises for teachers for the fifth straight year, while Democrats argued that the state should do even more for public education.
Walter Dalton, president of Isothermal Community College in Rutherford County and a Democratic former lieutenant governor, compared good schools to athletic equipment.
"A strong capitalistic economy is driven by competition, but it’s not competition when one team walks on the field well coached and with the best equipment and the other team is barefoot and ignorant of the rules," Dalton wrote in his survey response.
Liz Chen, co-founder of MyHealthEd.org, said the news media needs to do a better job covering education and race in rural communities.
"For example, there are so few students attending Warren County High School next year that they are going to one high school science teacher in their building. How can this single high school science teacher be expected to adequately prepare students for 21st century jobs?" Chen wrote.
"What happens to Warren County High School (and other rural high schools) as the population in the county continues to shrink?" she continued. "What are the implications of these population and demographic shifts on our education system and economy?"
Public schools received priority from men, women, white and black respondents, as well as Democrats. (Republicans ranked the economy as their top concern over schools, but only by a slim margin.)
But, in some cases, respondents' priorities varied by gender, race and party affiliation.
For example, Democrats ranked health care as their second-biggest concern and Republicans ranked it seventh. Republicans included the opioid crisis and mass shootings among their top five concerns, while Democrats ranked those issues eighth and eleventh, respectively.
Women ranked race relations as the third most-important topic and men ranked it seventh. Black respondents ranked race relations as a top five concern, while white respondents ranked it eighth.
Bree Newsome, a Charlotte activist, said it's tough to make progress when people can't agree on the end goals.
"Since the end of the Civil War the state of North Carolina like the rest of the nation has been stuck in a pattern of taking two steps forward only to take one step back," Newsome said.
"Progress made during the Reconstruction Era (when North Carolina had 30 Black state legislators and a Black representative in the US Congress who was a former slave) was quickly ended with the Wilmington Massacre and the ushering in of Jim Crow laws," she said.
"Progress in public policy and social practice is not something that happens as an inevitability with the forward progression of time. Rather, it is measured by the tenacity of those seeking freedom, equity and justice generation after generation. "
Will various groups in society be able to engage in civil discussion and reach compromises to address important issues?
The odds look bleak to respondents.
"Rather than looking at these issues and seeing problems that need to be solved, we see fights that need to be won. It is stronger to persuade than to shame," said Catherine Lawson, a Republican attorney in Raleigh.
"If it was ever true that 'all politics is local,' it’s certainly not the case now," she continued. "Our fixation on national politics compresses all of our issues and leaders into a single category, when we should allow for difference and specialization."
Paul Cuadros, executive director of the UNC Scholars’ Latino Initiative, said Americans are divided because the country is changing and that creates anxiety.
"Our leaders can do a lot to create better ties of fellowship and common interest but right now our leaders and other entities profit off of division," Cuadros wrote. "We need leaders who can identify this issue and begin to create more unity in our state and country."
This is the first of a series of surveys The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun will conduct with the Influencers through the November elections to help focus media and candidate discussion around the policy issues of most importance to North Carolinians. Look for the next report in two weeks.
Specht: 919-829-4870 @AndySpecht