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Views from the Governor's Office: The Importance of Education

Beginning in the mid-1970s, I served for two terms as governor of North Carolina. I remained out of office for eight years and was elected again as governor in 1992. As you know, I have always been interested in education. I have worked hard - both in office and out of office - to support and improve education.

In my state we have an initiative called Smart Start. We know increasingly from research on the brain that the brain develops the most in the earliest years. We know that when a child is stimulated and nurtured and cared for, their brain responds by literally connecting up. And we know that it’s critically important to provide that stimulation and nurturing in the child’s first years. We are pushing this very hard in North Carolina, with support from our educational community, especially from higher education, at a place called the Frank Porter Graham Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We know that we cannot guarantee that every child will soar, but we can put them all on the launching pad. I encourage all of you as higher education leaders to support early childhood development in your states. In North Carolina this effort involves quality education, including from parents - the first and most important teachers. And it involves good health care for all children in their first five years. Here in Georgia you’ve begun a kindergarten for four-year-olds, and that is a great accomplishment. But I could argue that the three years before that are just as important.

My view as governor is also that we need to commit to K—12 education. I’m concerned about our public schools and I want to help them be truly excellent. In North Carolina, we have pushed to raise student standards. We have also raised teacher standards so that our teachers know their subject matter, know how to teach well, and know how to work with their colleagues, parents and communities. And in becoming very successful, they have become more involved in the reform of their schools.

In North Carolina we have also set high goals for raising the salaries for our public school teachers and administrators. I’ll share a secret with you that I think is important: too often we do not give the people the credit they deserve. In 1996 I ran for governor saying, “If I am elected, we will raise the standards for teachers and we will raise salaries from a present position of 43rd in the nation to the national average. We will do it in four years.” Some people told me, “That’s going to sound like too much money.” Well, it amounted to one billion dollars. Others told me, “The people won’t respond to that.” But you know what we found? People were willing to accept a challenge if it meant better schools. People have high goals for their schools, and they wanted us to have high goals. They responded in a powerful way, just as they did here in Georgia in establishing kindergartens for four-year-olds, paying tuition for students who make As and Bs, and providing technology for education at all levels. If we go about it right, we can trust the people to make the right decisions and to give the right kind of support.

Yet another perspective from the governor’s office - and I am now becoming more involved in this - is that we must expand substantially our commitment to higher education. Many of you know that North Carolina cast its lot with higher education over two centuries ago. We are very proud that we established the first public university in America, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, at that time. More than four decades ago we built a community college system that is open to people in every county in the state; everyone in North Carolina lives within 30 minutes of a campus. Our state has built a higher education system not just with great basketball teams, but with strong public and private colleges and universities. People in North Carolina feel an ownership for their colleges and universities. They cherish them. Their colleges and universities have helped work a miracle in North Carolina. This is literally true. I remember that when Georgia Governor Zell Miller and I started in politics, Georgia and North Carolina - and the South generally - were poor places. But in our state, in Georgia, and throughout the South we’ve seen a transformation. Our state has transformed itself into a thriving and prosperous center for research and technology. “Tobacco Road” is now the “Research Triangle.” I cannot tell you what a difference it has made.

Every week the governor’s pages come in, we have a picture taken in the Capitol, and I have a chance to talk to them. Every week I ask them, “If you were governor, what would you do?” You can probably guess what their answers are. Almost every week it’s education. They would improve their schools. They are interested in their opportunities for higher education. That’s what young people care the most about, and that’s what their parents care the most about.

And you know what else they tell me? I served as chair of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and as chair of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. I worked with some of you in these areas. Because of my interest in how we go about teaching, I would often ask the governor’s pages about their teachers. And almost every week their responses were about the same. At least half or more said that their teachers were very good. About half said that they were pretty good. Only a few hands went up to say that they were not so good. I tell you about those responses so you know you’ve done a pretty good job - maybe a very good job - of preparing your teachers, although we’ve got a long way to go and we know we can do better.


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