Greenville Daily Reflector
June 16, 2016
By Holly West

One North Carolina nonprofit is trying to create a roadmap to educational and economic prosperity through conversations with community leaders across the state.

Think NC First, a nonpartisan policy think tank, hosted the first in a series of forums at Sheppard Memorial Library Wednesday night to gather ideas for its Roadmap 2025, an open source policy guide.

Justin Guillory, executive director of Think NC First, said the final product will be a collection of policy ideas that take into consideration where the state has been and where it wants to go.

“We do think it’s important to think just about not only what we should be doing now, but what we should be doing 10 years from now, big ideas and big thoughts,” he said.

The forum was moderated by Roadmap 2025 Project Manager Sarah Crawford and included panelists John Chafee, president of economic development agency NCEast Alliance, and Michael Priddy, chairman of the Public School Forum of NC and a former Pitt County Schools superintendent.

The panel discussed the intersection of education and economic development. Chafee said industry has changed rapidly in recent decades due to technological advances and federal law, and it has had both positive and negative effects on eastern North Carolina.

He said the increased use of solar energy, for example, has resulted in cheaper, cleaner energy and expanded the tax base for some rural areas, but because of the way solar farms work, there are fewer jobs for people in the energy industry.

“We have some communities that have fared very well,” he said. “We have other communities that are still struggling in eastern North Carolina.”

An important part of attracting new industries to the region, Chafee said, is having strong public education. While financial incentives are helpful, he said those are often not offered until right before a contract is signed.

“If you don’t have those other things in place, including a great education system and really good community support for that education system, you’re probably not going to get to the point where incentives are part of the conversation,” he said.

When asked what the state of North Carolina can do to better support education, and by extension economic development, Priddy said legislators need to reverse the gradual privatization of public education, pointing to increased state funding for private schools in the form of so-called “opportunity scholarships” and the growing number of charter schools popping up around the state.

He also said there seems to be a one-size-fits-all approach that has made schools operate like factories and puts low-income students and those whose parents are not as involved in education at a major disadvantage.

“For people who want to see their children succeed from birth through college — in other words, when they’re born, the parents are already thinking about school and college — the system works,” Priddy said. “For folks who aren’t thinking about that, the system doesn’t work as well.”

Members of the audience, who were from educational, business and civic groups in Pitt County, had a chance to speak after the initial panel discussion. Don Cavellini, co-chair of the Pitt County Coalition Against Racism, said all the General Assembly’s policies affect education and economic development, not just the ones created explicitly to do so.

He noted the recently passed law known as House Bill 2, which forces people who are transgender to use restrooms that are not consistent with their gender identity and prevents North Carolinians from suing for workplace discrimination. Several businesses, including big names like PayPal, withdrew plans to expand in the state as a result of HB2’s passing.

“There’s other aspects in the workplace that attract the most up-and-coming corporations in the world, and that is the social climate at work, the tolerance that’s taught in the schools,” Cavellini said.

The information collected at Wednesday’s forum and others Think NC First plans to hold across the state will be compiled on the Roadmap 2025 website, Guillory said the project will be an ongoing process, so things will be added, changed and revised over time.

Priddy said he hopes legislators will see the ideas and use them to make a serious commitment to improving educational and economic outcomes for North Carolinians.

“When we were challenged by John Kennedy, no one would have ever imagined putting somebody on the moon, but we invested all the resources it took. What would happen if we chose to do that kind of thing with education? Would that produce the talent that you need for jobs to flow to America from other countries? I think it would.”