In Blog

(Updated with comments from N.C. State Sen. Chad Barefoot)

The  Governor’s School of North Carolina is in its 55th year, but it still seems like an innovative idea.

The program allows 670 kids to spend five and a half summer weeks studying a wide variety of subjects at two N.C. college campuses. It’s super-competitive and prestigious, an effort to reward excellence and creativity. North Carolina was the first state with this type of program, and at least 20 others have followed.

Some North Carolina lawmakers don’t agree with its merits and are working to end the program as the state budget is decided in the next few weeks.

A draft law eliminates the $800,000 annual outlay for the Governor’s School as of 2018 and proposes creating the Legislative School for Leadership and Public Service as a summer program run by the UNC System.

Sorry, but I’m not too sure the state’s brightest teen-age musicians, scientists and innovators would be attracted to a school focused on “leadership and public service.”

Perhaps, the state can’t afford $800,000 a year.

But I’d call it a wise investment in our best and brightest. Providing such an unforgettable experience can pay dividends as attendees make lifelong friends and realize how much our state values them. If the program motivates only 20 or 30 kids a year to spend their careers in the state doing great, creative things, rather than heading to New York or Boston, it strikes me as a terrific payoff. (In fact, surveys show that 70% stay in North Carolina after college.)

N.C. State Sen. Chad Barefoot, who co-chairs the Senate Education Appropriations Committee, favors the changes. A Republican from Franklin County, he says the initial state Senate budget called for eliminating funding for Governor’s School this year, but his amendment provides $800,000 to continue one more year, this summer. Governor’s School takes money “directly out of the public school fund and also out of local public schools,” he noted in an e-mailed statement. Tuition and the Governor’s School foundation can provide funding for the program without state support, he says.

Instead, the state would spend $200,000 on an existing residential summer program at the N.C. School for Science and Math in Durham for students interested in science, technology and math fields, and $600,000 for the Legislative School. Both would be overseen by the UNC System, not the Department  of Public Instruction. He noted that a “Legislators School for Youth Leadership and Development” ran from 1985-2009, mostly at Western Carolina and East Carolina universities.

The state “has a need to develop the next generation of public servants,” he said.

A cynic might think the effort is the latest by Republican legislators to strip power from Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat. If that’s the case, couldn’t they just rename the program and move on?

Anyway, here are the basics of the Governor’s School program, as explained by officials at the state Department of Public Instruction:

–        It costs $1.35 million to run Governor’s School annually. Most of the money goes to 1) hosts Meredith College in Raleigh and Salem College in Winston-Salem for rent, food and other costs and 2) to pay 115 faculty, staff and administrators who work for six weeks. Two state employees in the department’s Exceptional Children Division work on the program.

  • The state provides $800,000. To make up the shortfall,  nominating schools must pay $500 per student if selected.” Some schools require families to pay that cost. Scholarships are available and are funded by a foundation comprised of alumni, educators and state leaders.
  • Enrollment started at 400 students, peaked in the late ‘80s at 800 and was cut in 2009 due to state budget shortfalls.
  • More than 36,000 students have attended the school since 1963.
  • Given that North Carolina’s population has more than doubled since 1963, it’s obviously more competitive to gain admittance than ever.
  • Annual surveys show more than 95% of students are satisfied with the program.
  • Earlier this year the State Board of Education agreed with the N.C. DPI request for $1.6 million in annual funding. Doubling the outlay would enable 800 students to attend and eliminate the $500 tuition charge.

I’ve never attended Governor’s School — I wouldn’t have been smart enough! My son, who is smart enough, didn’t either. But supporting some of our most academically talented students is a sign of a state looking ahead. Do we really want to step backward?

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