North Carolina must face down a looming budget crisis while sustaining—and even expanding—its school improvement efforts over the next two years, Gov. Michael F. Easley told state legislators last week in his first State of the State Address.
Mr. Easley called for a voluntary, statewide preschool program for 4-year-olds deemed at risk for academic failure, as well as reduced class sizes in grades K- 3, as ways to help students reach higher standards.
“Our schools have made great strides, but in many parts of our state they are simply not the schools our children deserve,” he said in the Feb. 19 speech. “If we want our students to succeed, they must arrive at the schoolhouse door ready to learn—and once inside, they need an encouraging environment that allows them not just to pass but to excel.”
The governor, a Democrat, proposed a state lottery system—a plan he said would raise $400 million to $500 million annually—to pay for the programs.
During his campaign last November to succeed longtime Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., Mr. Easley pointed to evidence that residents regularly cross state lines to play lottery games in Virginia and Georgia.
“We are spending hundreds of millions of dollars—North Carolina’s dollars—to build new schools in other states, while we’re packing our kids in trailers at home,” Gov. Easley said in his address last week.
Lottery initiatives have been proposed, and defeated, in every North Carolina legislative session since the early 1980s. Some observers believe, however, that the worsening budget situation, as well as a recent ruling in the state’s 7-year-old school finance lawsuit, will put new pressure on lawmakers to pass such a measure.
Bad Budget Times
Earlier this month, the governor declared a fiscal emergency, citing a projected $800 million shortfall in the state budget for the current fiscal year. But education escaped the knife in his plan to cut nearly $1 billion from the $14 billion budget. Over the past few decades, budget woes have contributed to North Carolina’s legacy of stop-and-start efforts to improve its schools.
The state’s 4-year-old accountability program has won North Carolina national recognition as a leader in the push to ratchet up academic performance by holding students and schools to state-specified standards. The program has also won widespread bipartisan support in the legislature and has been viewed as a long-term commitment among lawmakers.
But now it is time, Mr. Easley declared, to move beyond setting and enforcing academic standards. The state must now provide the tools to help students meet those expectations.
“North Carolina is recognized for real accountability and high standards,” the governor said. “But accountability is simply enforcing standards. We are simply not doing enough to help students reach higher standards.”
The preschool proposal would help close the state’s achievement gap between white and minority students, Mr. Easley argued. It might also help satisfy a Wake County superior court ruling last fall in a lawsuit brought by low-wealth districts that would require the state to provide preschool to at-risk children.
Moreover, Mr. Easley said, reducing the pupil- teacher ratio to 18-to-1 in the early grades would give teachers more chances to meet individual children’s needs.
Getting the word out on how schools are doing should also be a priority, the governor said. He proposed mailing report cards to parents on how many students are in their children’s classes and whether their teachers are certified in the subjects they are teaching.
The former state attorney general asked local school boards to adopt character education programs, dress codes, and stricter discipline policies to make schools safer for students and teachers.
A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 2001 edition of Education Week as N.C. Governor Says Students Need More Help