Governor’s visit highlights early childhood development, business and education

BUSINESS AND EDUCATION: Biltmore Farms President Jack Cecil, left, interviews Gov. Pat McCrory at a conference Sept. 21 at UNC Asheville focusing on early childhood development, business and education. Photo by Tracy Rose

A meeting last week showcasing the governor’s commitment to early childhood development — and the connections between education and business — also illuminated the “unintended consequences” of how state dollars for education are spent.

On Monday, Gov. Pat McCrory appeared at UNC Asheville to speak at a luncheon meeting about the importance of early childhood education, hosted by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and a nonprofit housed in his office, the N.C. Business Committee for Education, a nonpartisan organization composed of North Carolina’s corporate leaders.

Among those leaders is Ann Ashley, a vice president at The Biltmore Co. who serves on the committee’s board of directors. The Biltmore Co. (along with Mission Health) sponsored the meeting, and Biltmore Farms President Jack Cecil interviewed the governor in front of the audience.

After listing his administration’s educational accomplishments (raising public teachers’ minimum salary to $35,000 a year, setting aside money to lower class size in first-grade classes and preserving teacher assistant positions), McCrory largely focused on the importance of early childhood education and how it relates to business.

“The stats prove themselves: If we don’t have the early childhood development, then we don’t have the first-, second-graders reading at sufficient levels or doing basic math at sufficient levels; then by third grade, if they’re not at sufficient levels, we know we’ve lost them most likely for life,” McCrory told the crowd of about 100 business, education and nonprofit leaders, some of whom traveled from as far away as Clay County.

“We are putting more money into pre-K; that’s through my department, Health and Human Services,” the governor said. “Pre-K is extremely, extremely important.

“Them we’re finding out, sadly, 60 percent of our high school graduates — and it’s getting better — need remedial reading and math when they go to community college. And the same thing’s happening in our universities, where we’re putting money in remedial, when that money should be put at the very early stage. Once you have to recover, you’ve waited too long.”

He then signaled his priorities in spending state money.

“We’re spending a lot of money … and I want to transfer more of the money down,” McCrory said. “I think you get a bigger bang for your buck early on than in reacting to the situation.”

McCrory also touted the N.C. Business Committee for Education’s program that sends teachers into businesses for experiential learning, which is then shared with students in classrooms. In 2015, 18 teachers — including Greg McFee, an American history teacher at North Buncombe High School — partnered with 15 businesses across North Carolina.

“We need to expose the educational people, including professors, I might add, including community college people, to what business is looking for and show them the environment,” McCrory said, as well as encouraging business people to visit classrooms. “We’ve got break down the silos.”

“The reason we know there’s a silo is the results. Because right now in our state and in our country, there’s a skills gap. There’s a serious skills gap.”

McCrory noted that there’s a shortage of nurses, mechanics, electricians, information technology personnel, accountants and finance people.

“And if we’re going to continue to recruit business — whether it’s to the western part of the state or any other part of the state — if we cannot find the talent, and the talent’s not coming out of our schools, business will not come, and in fact, business will leave,” McCrory said.

“We’ve got to get the education community and the business community to talk to each other more,” McCrory said. “If we have people graduating in skills areas in which there’s no market for, and not graduating in areas where there is a market, then we’re in trouble.”

Another program of the N.C. Business Committee for Education, Students@Work, sends students into businesses to expose them to different careers. The audience heard from Colby Worley, a ninth-grader at the Nesbitt Discovery Academy, whose class last year at Enka Middle School toured Duke Energy (the governor’s former employer). “It helped me realize the path I wanted to take, the career path,” Worley told the group.

The governor also took questions from the audience, including one from Beth Maczka, CEO of the YWCA of Asheville, who asked McCrory about the “unintended consequences” of the administration’s focus on early childhood education: the state cutting off funding for child care vouchers for K-5 kids.

“Those working parents still need to have a safe place for their children to be after school, and it’s a real gap in our process between getting them ready to read by the time they’re in third grade,” she said. “Having really quality after-school care is the next phase after early childhood. … It’s a gap that is really essential, and our workers need their kids to be in a safe place.”

“I agree with that, and they also need good transportation,” McCrory replied. “I accept that feedback, and it’s something we need to work on.”

Questioned after the meeting, Maczka offered her thoughts in an email:

“While it was encouraging to hear the governor’s support for early childhood education, it was disheartening to know that support for children from 5-12 years of age has been significantly reduced and that the $445 million state surplus was put in a rainy day fund,” Maczka said.

“If our goal is to have all children reading at grade level by the third grade, low-income children need quality after-school care to help them sustain the strong start they get in early child care. I appreciate that the governor acknowledged this gap and received the feedback graciously, but thousands of families have lost their after-school vouchers and will end up cutting their hours, quitting their jobs or being forced to leave their children alone, which is likely to lead to far greater problems and expenses for the state. The rainy day for low-income families is now,” Maczka said.

After the governor’s speech, Tracy Zimmerman, executive director of the N.C. Early Childhood Foundation, delivered a presentation on early childhood development, and Kit Cramer, CEO of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, offered closing remarks.

And attendees — including UNC Asheville Chancellor Mary K. Grant, Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, state Rep. John Ager, Western Carolina University Chancellor David Belcher and Buncombe County Commissioner Holly Jones (who’s also running for lieutenant governor) — were free to network.

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