North Carolina Democrats seem poised to make education the centerpiece of the 2016 campaign. And why not? Per pupil spending is among the lowest in the nation, teachers are leaving for other professions or other states, and teacher pay has slipped far below the national average. Besides, Democrats have always been the party of education and North Carolina has a long history of making public schools, community colleges, and universities a priority.
However, a poll shows that, nationally, Democrats are losing their edge. According to the poll by Global Strategies Group and commissioned by Third Way last year, Democrats are seen as the party “pouring money into a broken system” and “blaming poverty for problems with public education.” The party has seen their advantage on education shift from around 20% to about 8% over the Republicans.
If Kentucky is any indication, Republicans smell blood. During the gubernatorial contest this fall, Americans for Prosperity ran ads targeting African-American voters and accusing Democratic candidate Jack Conway of keeping children in failing schools. Whether it worked or not will take a deeper dive into the election returns, but AFP wouldn’t have paid for the ad unless they had some data to show that it might work.
North Carolina is not Kentucky, or the broader United States, for that matter. Republicans have cut funding for public schools and universities in a state that prides itself on its commitment to education. However, the poll indicates that Democrats need a broader narrative than just criticizing the GOP or promising to return funding and raising teacher pay. They need to offer new ideas about to improve public education and counter the GOP plans to shift public funds into private schools.
Republicans are banking on their “school choice” programs to capture the imagination of families who live in areas where schools are failing and also to pay off their religious base. For people who live in areas where schools have been struggling for generations, the choice idea is attractive. Democrats need to come up with an alternative. Raising teacher pay to the national average and increasing per pupil spending should certainly part of the equation, but Democrats need to offer real solutions to improve chronically failing schools, not just point out that economic disparity causes the problems.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >