RALEIGH — Tea Party favorite and political newcomer Dan Forest is calling for an “education revolution.” He believes he is better suited as a Republican outsider to deliver a vital sea change of innovation than his Democratic opponent for lieutenant governor, Linda Coleman, a career government employee.
Forest is the son of U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, R-9th District, who is retiring after nine terms in Congress. He champions school choice, education vouchers, and virtual schools. He would like make the State Board of Education more accountable and shake up its structure.
“I think we need to have an educational revolution,” Forest said. “I think we have to change things quite significantly.”
The lieutenant governor is the No. 2 person in state government, sits on the 10-member Council of State, and presides over the Senate. It is the only elective position to have both executive and legislative duties. The lieutenant governor sits on the North Carolina Board of Community Colleges and State Board of Education.
Coleman did not respond to a series of phone calls and emails that began more than a month ago for an interview. Campaign aides alternately said she saw no value in talking with Carolina Journal or that her schedule was full.
The State Employees Association of North Carolina, and its national parent organization, Service Employees International Union, are fueling her campaign. They contributed nearly $400,000 to her primary victory and are expected to be major donors in the fall election.
While Forest sees the need for school reform, Coleman, a former teacher who stepped down from her position as director of the Office of State Personnel to campaign for lieutenant governor, is pushing the more traditional Democratic approach, according to her website.
Coleman wants an education system that prepares students for a 21st century global economy. She “will fight to restore funding due to budget shortfalls and cuts from the current Republican-controlled state legislature,” her website says. She will “fight to reduce classroom size” and “fundamentally oppose any effort to privatize our public education system.”
It is time “to break the monopoly at all levels of choice,” Forest said. That could include more charter schools or magnet schools within the public system, private school education through tax credits or vouchers, home school, and virtual education, Forest said.
“We need to make this about the education of the children and not about the bureaucracy or the system,” he said. “The system’s broken. It hasn’t been working in decades, and the children are the ones that get punished for that, and I think, especially when it comes to virtual education, your poorer communities are the ones that are going to get punished if we start blocking virtual education.”
Forest said “we have the ability to customize an education program for individual students. Why would we not start doing that?”
He also proposes change at the uppermost level of state education, starting with the eight-year terms the State Board of Education’s 11 appointed members serve. He believes school board terms should be four years and coincide with the governor’s election in order to allow the governor to implement his agenda.
“I think that would go a long way to actually getting some things done on that school board,” Forest said.
Because the appointments are made in two-year intervals during odd-numbered years, “You could have a governor there for eight years and still not have a full majority school board,” Forest said.
The terms are written into the state constitution, so any change would require an amendment.
Forest would like to see more face-to-face accountability on the state board by ending the ban on public comments during board meetings. He called the current practice of allowing only emailed comments received prior to meetings “pompous.”
“Is there a county in the state that doesn’t allow public comments?” he asked rhetorically. “I think there’d be revolt in that county if they didn’t allow parents to come in and talk, so why would you not allow people to come in and make public comments for education at the highest level, to hold them accountable for the decisions that they’re making?”
Forest sees an intersection of the lieutenant governor’s role on the Community College Board and the sticky matter of illegal immigration, which he called “definitely a top issue” on voters’ minds.
“I’m not in favor of giving tuition to people who are not citizens of our country,” Forest said. “It costs our state $975 million a year to educate the children of illegal immigrants, and that’s significant in the scheme of our school budget.”
The Community College Board banned illegal immigrants from the state’s two-year schools in 2008, but lifted the prohibition in 2009. Undocumented students must pay out-of-state tuition, have graduated from a U.S. school, and cannot receive state or federal financial aid.
The state should open avenues for community colleges to grant more four-year degrees and engage in partnerships with the universities, Forest said.
“I don’t think the universities like that a whole lot,” he said, but it makes sense to offer more diverse programs and degree-granting opportunities closer to home for students who may not have the money or flexibility to go away to a university.
The state’s C-STEP model that allows low- to moderate-income students to transfer into four-year schools for a degree after two years at a community college should be expanded, Forest said. And more emphasis should be placed on work force training at the community colleges.
As an architect who has spent his career in the business world, Forest says he has a better understanding of how to approach economic improvement than Coleman, “a lifelong politician and bureaucrat.”
“We need to eliminate the corporate income tax,” Forest said. “If we’re not eliminating the income tax altogether, then we need to reform the personal income tax at the business level so that we create a small business tax bracket for small business owners so they’re not getting punished for creating jobs and creating wealth.”
The state gas tax needs to be examined for reduction, he said.
Forest said voters “are very fired up” about illegal immigration. “I think they’ve seen a lot of lip service given to it in the past and nothing done” to protect the rule of law or “to make sure American jobs are going to American citizens.”
Coleman, former state human resources director, ex-chairwoman of the Wake County Commissioners, and former state legislator, wants to harness “regional strengths” for economic recovery and energy independence through things such as wind energy on the coast, according to her website. She would like to see “smart investments and incentives” to recruit biotech firms that would create clean energy.
She would be an “economic cheerleader” for the state “by working to recruit and maintain business and industry, standing up for small business, championing rural economic development, linking our education system with our economy,” her website says. Workforce training and access to education are vital, especially for military personnel who have served the country, according to her website.
Coleman was ahead of Forest 41 percent to 39 percent in a Public Policy Polling survey of likely voters taken Aug. 31 through Sept. 2. While each led handily among their liberal and conservative bases, respectively, Coleman outpolled Forest 46-27 among moderates.
Coleman led among women, 43-34; Forest led among men, 46-39. Forest, who is white, led among white voters, 48-32; Coleman, who is black, led among African-Americans, 70-9, and “other,” 48-42. Coleman outpolled Forest in the 18-29 age group, 52-23 percent, and 46-65 age demographic, 44-39 percent. Forest led in the 30-45 category, 41-39 percent, and older than 65, 48-31 percent.
Dan E. Way is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.
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