With Election Day almost here, it’s become clear that one issue has headlined almost all of the races: education.
Incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator Kay Hagan and her Republican challenger Thom Tillis have traded barbs over issues of teacher pay and education funding, while similar conversations are playing out in legislative races throughout the state.
If you just look through the campaign mailers in House District 41 – a race between Republican Tom Murry and Democrat Gale Adcock – you will see words like “public education,” “teacher pay,” and “schools” plastered again and again in large colorful fonts.
Murray is a pharmacist and attorney who has served two terms. Earlier this month, he was part of a GOP candidates’ forum in Cary. At one point, one of his supporters in the crowd asked him a question about those ads.
“A lot of people are lying . Why are they allowed to get up there and lie…?” the supporter asked.
“The biggest lie that is being told in politics right now is that we cut education by $500 million. That is a pants-on-fire lie!” Murry replied.
Murry is talking about a claim aimed at him and many other state Republican lawmakers.
“Even at the state legislative level, they are willing to perpetuate a known falsehood. Shame on you!” Murry said.
The claim that Republicans cut $500 million out of public education is misleading. Spending has actually gone up over the years, but some would argue that it’s not enough to keep up with the growing number of students.
Murry and other Republicans are touting what they did for teachers in the last session – voting to raise the starting salary to $35,000 and giving teachers an average pay increase of seven percent.
“Gave teachers their first meaningful raise in decade, that’s progress and that’s what I’ve been trying to focus on instead of trying to correct falsehoods,” Murry said.
'Children Don't Have Textbooks'
It’s clear that Democrats and their supporters are relying heavily on the topic of education and dissatisfaction with the General Assembly to motivate voters.
Murry’s democratic opponent, Gale Adcock, serves on Cary’s town council. She’s also a nurse practitioner and works as the chief health officer for SAS institute. Like many other Democrats, she’s critical of Murry and other Republicans bragging about their pay raise for teachers.
“I liken this to having a patient who shows every sign of heart disease and you ignore it until they’re lying on the floor of your exam room having a heart attack, you give them CPR, save their life and pat yourself on the back because you walked in the last minute and saved them,” she said. “Well you know what they didn’t have to wait until the last minute.”
Adcock says she wants to see a sustainable plan that raises teacher pay to the national average if not higher. Unlike Murry, she doesn’t rule out raising taxes, but prefers moving revenues around instead. She says when she talks with voters, every conversation begins with education.
“They’re worried that their children don’t have textbooks for the classes they’re taking,” she said. “They’re very concerned that teachers are being tossed about as pawns on a chess board.”
Teachers Knocking On Doors
Some teachers are inserting themselves directly into the political conversation. On a warm Saturday morning, teachers Jessica Benton and Megan Taber roamed around a neighborhood in Morrisville advocating for Gale Adcock.
Taber is a sixth-grade social studies teacher in Chapel Hill. She said she wants voters to know how difficult it’s been dealing with larger class sizes and fewer teacher assistants.
“You know, I want to be a teacher but I’ve been questioning whether I should stay in North Carolina,” she said “So my being out here is also partially so I can tell myself that I’ve done everything possible to improve education in NC before I throw in the towel.”
Toward the end of the afternoon, after knocking on dozens of doors without an answer, they come across Ray Walker.
“Guys, you’ve all been corrupted by the left-leaning deal, I’m telling you, it’s BS… No offense,” he said.
Walker isn’t a fan of Democratic candidates. He’s originally from Florida.
“And one of the reasons we moved to Carolina is because of the better education and the moment we literally got here Common Core was announced and we almost died,” he said.
Walker has a lot of thoughts on Common Core – the new academic standards used in public schools.
The teachers say it’s not unusual for voters to want to chat for a while about education. It’s a topic on many people’s minds and it’s one that could push tight races – like the one between Adcock and Murry – in one direction or the other.