Republican and Democrat candidates in Forsyth state legislative races sharply split on education and taxation policies.
Republican and Democratic candidates for two state legislative districts in suburban Forsyth County outlined radically different agendas for education during a recent forum.
Republicans hold both districts, including Senate District 31, which forms a ring around Winston-Salem from Lewisville to Kernersville, and House District 74, which covers the northern end of the county. Energized by a recent upsurge in teacher activism, Democratic challengers are making a strong push in both districts.
The give-and-take between Republican incumbents and Democrat challengers during a Sept. 26 candidate forum hosted by the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Council of PTAs often came down to a clash in emphasis between performance and funding.
“Our education system is radically underfunded by both national standards and by compensation packages for teachers,” said Democrat John Motsinger Jr., a lighting-and-rigging technician who works on traveling theater shows, who is challenging Republican incumbent Joyce Krawiec in Senate District 32.
Republican Debra Conrad touted her leadership on House Education Policy Committee and success in passing a bill to help children with dyslexia.
“Sometimes I think when all we talk about is dollar signs no matter what the topic is — and yeah, money is important — but sometimes the devil is in the details,” said Conrad, who is defending the House District 74 seat against Democrat Terri LeGrand. “And those are the things that really help the kids. And that’s what I work on every day down there.”
LeGrand, who works in the financial aid office at Wake Forest University, said North Carolina faces a “crisis” in declining enrollment at education schools that train teachers, and pointed to a “teacher wage penalty” — the difference between what teachers and their peers with equivalent education earn. The gap in North Carolina, she said, is 35.5 percent, compared to 17 percent nationwide.
“And if we continue that way, there’s no way you can maintain small class sizes because you will just literally not have the bodies to put in the classrooms,” LeGrand said. “There’s been a lot of lip service… to raising teacher pay. But the fact is, it’s been a shell game. They have been transferring money from longevity pay, from master teacher pay and other resources to encourage teachers to stay in the classroom, and moving them into the salary schedule for new teachers.”
Krawiec said the state has given five consecutive pay raises to teachers since Republicans took control of the legislature, and that the legislature increased the funding for education by $700 million this year. She defended the budgetary changes used by Republicans to fund the pay raises.
“We have done away with a 33-step, very complicated pay system,” Krawiec said. “We think [teachers] should be treated just like any other professional. They should reach a high-salary schedule earlier than 30 years, which is what it was before.”
Overall funding for education
Much of the debate between the candidates from the two parties on overall education funding centered on outdated textbooks, and teachers spending money out of pocket on supplies.
Motsinger said he recently visited his alma mater, RJ Reynolds High School, and found a tattered copy of a 2001 modern history textbook that he signed out when he was enrolled.
All four candidates agreed that teachers should not have to spend money out of pocket on basic school supplies.
“We send money for each child for supplies,” Conrad said. “Teachers should not be having to spend money on supplies. And we’re gonna find out what is happening to that money, and we’re gonna fix it…. I’m baffled by this burden on the teachers that they’re having to go out and spend this, because that should not be happening.”
LeGrand responded, “So I think the answer is that the pot of money that you’re sending to the school districts is not adequate.” Throughout the forum, the Democrat candidate for House hammered at North Carolina’s No. 39 ranking in national per-pupil spending.
Krawiec conceded that the state’s national standing isn’t good enough.
“We’re 39th in per-pupil spending; yes, we are,” the Republican lawmaker said. “But do you know that four short years ago we were 49th? So that shows you how much we have improved. And we’re gonna continue to improve because it’s a priority. It’s not acceptable to be 39th, but it’s a lot better than 49th.”
Her opponent suggested state lawmakers need to demonstrate more urgency.
“We are radically behind,” Motsinger said. “And that needs to change, and that needs to change quickly. Because students, they don’t get five years to play catch-up games. That means they’ve gone through elementary school, and that foundation is gone.”
Taxation and education
The Republican-controlled General Assembly has implemented incremental teacher pay increases while phasing in a succession of tax cuts. Candidates from the two parties demonstrated fundamentally different views on how tax policy affects education, with Democrats arguing that the tax cuts have helped the wealthy at the expense of schools while Republicans claim tax cuts generate the revenue needed to increase funding for education.
“We are the ninth fastest growing state in the country,” LeGrand said. “So as you have more children and you have inflation you cannot continue to dedicate the same percentage of your overall fund and continue to serve your students in the way they need to be served. Our current General Assembly has favored and has prioritized corporate tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the wealthy over adequately funding our schools.”
Conrad countered, “She’s absolutely dead wrong on the corporate tax rate…. It has not taken away revenue from the state budget. It has brought in revenue because people are hiring, raising raises, expanding, building, bringing new businesses here. We are one of only five states last year that had excess revenue come in, because when you grow the economy, then you have more money to spend on education. The corporate tax rate cut hasn’t competed or reduced our spending on education. That’s funny math.”
Motsinger called for state investment in school construction, an idea the Republican-controlled General Assembly hasn’t been willing to entertain. The state Department of Public Instruction has estimated that it would cost about $8 billion to meet the capital needs of schools across the state.
“This is a problem you don’t fix in hindsight,” said Motsinger, whose mother, Elisabeth Motsinger, serves on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board. “It’s starting to manifest itself in more trailers being added on the campuses. Many times the lunchrooms, as an example, are so overcrowded in terms of time and expenditure that you have students who are arriving at 7:30 or 8 in the morning eating lunch starting at 10 and it going all the way ’til 1.”
The observation prompted a lecture from Conrad on the delineation of local and state powers.
“The legislature does not build schools here in Forsyth County,” Conrad said. “The county commission puts the schools bond on the referendum. They approve the purchase of the land. They carry the debt load.
“If you’ll go back — and I know you’re young — and read the School Machinery Act that was written after the Great Depression — because the state was not even involved in education before the Depression — it delineated what’s state responsibility and what’s local responsibility,” Conrad continued. “Go back and read that, and you’ll figure it out.”
Motsinger cited the Public School Building Bond Act, which would have put a $1.9 billion school construction bond on the November 2018 ballot. The bipartisan legislation was sponsored by Republican Majority Whip Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph), among others. Both the Senate and House bills died in committee in 2017. The move would not have been unprecedented: NC Policy Watch reported that state lawmakers authorized a school construction bond in 1996.
After defending his proposal, Motsinger chided Conrad: “To my youth, that is not relevant to this conversation. I know that’s a favorite political game — to blame young people for being young.”
The candidates discussed the role of the wealth gap in determining educational outcomes for students. Conrad argued that parents of pre-K students need to get more involved in their children’s education. And Krawiec argued that Republican tax policies have put more people to work.
“We’ve constantly heard about jobs, jobs, jobs, but are they the jobs that allow the family to provide stable living conditions to raise children in?” Motsinger asked. “Far too many of my friends and colleagues work two, three jobs, are not home, are not able to make sure their children do their homework, have time to answer questions. And that is fundamental to providing a healthy education — a stable education. So, yes, we keep bringing in jobs, but they’re minimum wage jobs, they’re at Walmart, they’re not enough to keep a family afloat.”
Income tax cap
Not surprisingly, support for a ballot initiative to cap the state income tax at 7 percent broke down along party lines, with the Republican candidates in favor and Democrats opposed.
“We have proved to you we can run a government, very efficiently fund the necessary things, at [a] 5.49 percent [personal income tax rate], which is what we’re doing now,” Krawiec said. “What has happened as we have slowly reduced that rate, every single year our revenues have increase. You can’t argue that fact.”
LeGrand took the opposite tack.
“We absolutely need the resources that come from our income taxes,” she said. “We can’t tie the hands of future General Assemblies and prevent them from responding quickly and as needed to revenue needs.”