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Embrace public education - How Republicans can win in North Carolina

By D. G. Martin
Posted Wednesday, March 28, 2007

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Chapel Hill, NC - Why, somebody asked me last week, don’t Republicans get more support from the public on education issues? Democrats, he continued, have been running public education, and they have ruined it by selling out to the education bureaucracy.

I was attending a luncheon program sponsored by the Civitas Institute, “a research and public policy organization dedicated to providing conservative solutions for North Carolina's pressing issues.”

Each month at a luncheon (open to all, but attended mostly by political conservatives), Civitas President Jack Hawke, former chair of the North Carolina Republican Party, reviews results of a new poll that has surveyed North Carolina voters on important issues.

The March poll, like Civitas’s prior polls, shows “improving public education” to be one of the top concerns of North Carolina voters. Twenty-two percent say it is the challenge that “needs the most attention from state government.” It is topped only by “lower health care costs,” which is the main state government concern of 25% of poll respondents.

Responses to other questions, Jack Hawk said, gave further indications of North Carolinians concern for public education. For instance, 91% of respondents said that they supported “expanding vocational education programs in public high schools to make it more attractive to students thinking of dropping out of school.”

Respondents also favored raising the mandatory attendance age. Seventy-two percent registered support to the following question: “In light of the 32 percent dropout rate, do you support or oppose increasing the mandatory school attendance age from 16 to 18 years of age?”

The large majority of respondents favor bonds to fund public school construction needs over proposed bonds for other important state infrastructure needs.

Notwithstanding this strong support for improving public education, Hawke reported 49% of the respondents answered “yes” to this question: “If money were not an issue, would you choose to send your child to a private or parochial school instead of a public school?”

These responses were the basis for that question I got about the politics of public education. If the public has so little confidence in public schools that most (49%??) would choose private education for their own children, why don’t they give the Republicans a chance to fix the public schools?

It is an important political question. Here is why. As long as the public believes that Democrats are better for public education than Republicans, Democrats stand a good chance of retaining control of state government even against the trend of growing Republican strength in the region. But, should Republicans persuade the public that their party would really be better for public education, then Democrats can pack their bags and go home.

Now, back to the opening question: Why does the public continue to support the Democratic Party over the Republican Party on public education concerns?

Here is what I think. The public doesn’t really believe Republicans want to give the public schools more resources. They hear (and like) the Republican anti-tax messages. But when they hear Republicans call for public school “reform,” they suspect that reform means less money—much less money—for the schools.

I answered the question bluntly, saying, “The public worries that Republicans don’t really believe in public schools. It may not be fair. Republicans might really strongly want to help the schools. But their overall message of cutting government to save money and lower taxes comes across as a plan to cut resources to our schools rather than to strengthen them.”

Several people in the audience sprang up to challenge me. “It is not fair to say that Republicans don’t believe in public schools. We just don’t like the results of Democratic mismanagement. And we can do a better job. We support the schools even more than the Democrats.

“Hold on,” I responded. “You asked me a political question and I told you what I thought was the public’s perception about Republicans and public schools. Their perception may be unfair, but if you want to win elections you need to find out a way to change it.”

Then, I thought to myself, “I am in over my head and I need to change the subject quick.”

So, I asked, “Who is going to win the governor’s race in 2008?”

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D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Sundays at 5:00 p.m.

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