At a round table discussion for reporters and policymakers, hosted today by the University of North Carolina’s journalism school, new State Board of Education chair William Cobey  expressed his discontent with the state of teacher pay in North Carolina.
“I want our teachers to be paid better and I want the best public school system we could possibly have,” said Cobey. “But we have to get a handle on Medicaid. It limits our choices.”
Cobey, recently appointed to his post by Gov. Pat McCrory, also pointed to reducing North Carolinians’ tax burdens and improving the state’s unemployment rate, which is the 5th highest in the nation, as additional ways to increase investment in public education.
Today’s discussion coincided with the release of the House budget proposal , which includes provisions for a school voucher program  that would siphon $50 million from public schools over the next two years.
“My personal view is I’m for it,” Cobey said about vouchers. “Over time, you will save tax dollars for having a voucher system. There is a net savings.” Cobey said that he and NC State Superintendent of Schools, June Atkinson, disagree on the voucher program, saying that she has a problem with the accountability aspect of the program.
While there are some provisions in the proposed voucher program that require private schools receiving public money to test their students annually, the private schools are not held to the same accountability standards that public schools must comply with.
Describing his philosophy on vouchers, Cobey said he had school choice and his grandkids had school choice. “Most people with any amount of money have school choice, but if you are in a certain zip code and you are poor, you don’t have choice,” said Cobey.
“There are people like…Rep. Ed Hanes, who say this is a civil rights issue of our day. I realize this is a controversial thing, but I think it’s the right thing to do for people who don’t have a choice,” Cobey said.
While Cobey expressed support for moving public dollars into private education, he once again made clear his position on a bill  that would move oversight of public charter schools away from the State Board of Education to a new, independent board.
“If I have anything to do with it, that charter board will not happen,” said Cobey.
Cobey, who admitted to never having been inside of a charter school, explained that he and the State Board of Education want to ensure that North Carolina has quality public charter schools.
Asked again whether or not he sees a problem with the fact that private schools, which could receive taxpayer funds and be held to few quality standards under the voucher program, would have virtually no oversight, Cobey said he had no problem with that scenario.
As for his role as the new chair of the State Board of Education, Cobey explained that he seems himself as the implementer. “I see myself and the Board creating policies that the Governor and the legislature want,” said Cobey.
In a hypothetical scenario, Cobey told reporters that if Rep. Thom Tillis and Sen. Phil Berger offered him the chance to do two things with the 2013-15 budget for public education, he would increase teacher pay and get technology into the hands of every student.
“Public schools are definitely getting better, but not fast enough,” said Cobey. “The world is our competitor now. Our prosperity is tied to the kind of education we deliver to our children.”