Democratic candidates pledge support for early childhood education

Reginald Reid (left), Earline Parmon, Charlie Mellies and Ed Hanes Jr. were among the candidates at the Health Department Auditorium on Thursday night.

The four candidates favored to win Forsyth County legislative races in Republican-leaning districts who, if elected, are likely to serve in the majority in the two houses of the NC General Assembly, failed to show up for a forum on early childhood education on Thursday night.

Absent from the forum, which was funded by the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, Smart Start of Forsyth County and the United Way of Forsyth County, were NC Senate District 31 candidate Pete Brunstetter, along with Debra Conrad, Donny Lambeth and Julia Howard, who are respectively seeking election in House districts 74, 75 and 79.

Among the eight candidates on the dais, only one has legislative experience.

“I invite you to look at my record for the last two years, and where I’ve stood on the issues of early education, More at Four and Head Start programs,” said Democrat Earline Parmon, who currently represents House District 72 and who is running in the Democratic-leaning Senate District 32. “I’m an advocate for education by any means necessary as long as it’s legal and moral…. I am an educator. I’m passionate. I was told that Adam Clayton Powell Sr. said, ‘Learn, baby, learn so that you can earn, baby, earn.’ That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”  

After the forum, Parmon greeted Stephanie Fanjul, president of Smart Start and the NC Partnership for Children, a statewide program to help prepare young children for school. The Republican-controlled General Assembly cut funding to Smart Start and a similar program, More at Four, by 20 percent in 2011. 

“We’ve appreciated everything you’ve done,” Fanjul told Parmon. “You’ve been with us all the way.” 

Candidates were asked whether they would vote to restore the funds that were cut from Smart Start and More at Four in 2011. 

Parmon said she would vote to restore funding to Smart Start. Her Republican opponent, Reginald Reid, said he favors focusing investment at the 3rd-grade level. 

“This is my childhood experience,” he said. “There was an incident when I was in third grade. I’m African American. I come from a single mother. And I come from poverty, so they tried to label me as ‘at risk.’ So they put me in special programs. My mother said, ‘He’s not at risk.’ My achievement tests were off the charts. But we need more funding for public education, especially at third grade. And that’s where we need to get ’em at.” 

Ed Hanes Jr., the Democratic candidate for the Democratic-leaning House District 72 seat, said he would vote to increase funding for early-childhood education “to make sure that we don’t step backwards from our responsibility to our students here in North Carolina.” 

Charlie Mellies, his Republican opponent, also expressed support while tethering funding increases to economic improvements. 

“Ideally, I think we would all want to increase funding to education,” he said. “I am 100 percent against decreasing further education funds. At the minimum I would want to maintain the current funding, and hopefully raise revenue by adding taxpayers in order to increase funds for education.” 

Evelyn Terry, who is running in the Democratic-leaning House District 71 seat, echoed her Democratic cohorts. 

“My vote would certainly be to restore what has been taken away and to find ways to move forward to provide more,” she said. 

Kris McCann, her Republican opponent, said he concurred “to hold the funding for Smart Start as it is.” 

The forum gave Terry and McCann an opportunity to air contrasting philosophies about the relative importance of social and individual responsibility. 

“We don’t live in a world anymore where you can just go and — the bootstrap philosophy was never real, and it isn’t real now,” Terry said. 

McCann responded: “I believe the bootstrap theory does work, and I believe it’s necessary that we instill these values in people. And I think it’s time we start having true dialogue about what the real issue is here.” 

Later, McCann expanded by saying that the greatest teachers he had were his parents. 

“I graduated in a class of 750 people in the top 5 percent of my class, and I never attended kindergarten,” he said. “I had opportunities afforded to me through my parents, who were not rich; they were working class people. But what I had going for me that a lot of people don’t have going for them today is that I had a mom who was there waiting for me when I got home, who inspired me to do my homework. And the rule was I did my homework before I went outside to play…. Today, the open discussion, the dialogue that we need to have today goes back to family values. By getting the families back involved in the education of their children, and making sure that they inspire those children to reach the attainable goal, to do the best that they can. That’s what I believe. I believe it wholeheartedly.” 

David Moore, the Democratic candidate in the Republican-leaning House District 74, riffed on Terry and McCann’s disagreement. 

“Since the 2011 legislature, the Republicans in the legislature cut your bootstraps off,” he said. “I will start off 2013 by immediately restoring the funding, and then we will look at the budget and go forward and see if we can get some more money for the jobs you do.” 

Delmas Parker, the Democratic candidate in Republican-leaning House District 74, assailed those who argue the state can’t afford to pay for early childhood education. 

“Budgets are moral documents, where you put that money,” he said. “Half the children in Winston-Salem under five years of age is living in poverty…. How can we cut taxes on people making over $800,000 a year? How do we take a half-cent sales tax, and say we don’t have any money? There is revenue out there.” 

Most of the candidates said they agreed with a 2011 decision by Superior Court Judge Howard Manning that the state is obligated to provide pre-kindergarten education to all “at-risk” children. McCann said he would be compelled to abide by the law, but that he “was unable to determine what an at-risk child was determined to be.” 

Virtually all the candidates said they find merit to the idea of early childhood education, but they differed on whether the state should fund it beyond a basic obligation to “at-risk” children. 

“Why is it that we will update our iPhones, we’ll update our cars, we’ll update everything around us except how we educate our kids, or even considering a program to educate our kids?” Hanes asked. “Choice is fine. But I think it might be time to look at it. My kids are pretty smart today. My 4-year-old is smarter than I will ever be.” 

One exception was McCann. 

“I’m not going to be a cheerleader for the Smart Start program,” he said. “While I wholeheartedly support and want no child left behind I totally disagree with the part of starting our education level at four years of age…. I do find it a waste of taxpayer money to start it at a very early age. If we continue at this pace,” he asked, “are we going to take children out of birthing room when the mother gives birth, and put them directly into kindergarten at that time? Where do we stop?”

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