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RALEIGH, N.C. (WGHP) – With his name on no ballot, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper is sparing no words in attacking the Republican-controlled General Assembly, this time saying there is “a state of emergency for public education.”

Cooper lost in veto-override votes on pistol permits and then a restructuring of abortion rights to the GOP’s supermajority in both the House and the Senate, two issues he campaigned heavily to combat in the public arena.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper says there is a state of emergency for public education. (WGHP)

Now he is citing smaller raises for teachers coupled with a cut in state revenue in the Senate’s proposed budget and the expansion of private-school vouchers as significant problems that are “aiming to choke the life out of public education.

“There is no executive order like there is for a hurricane or the pandemic,” Cooper said, “but this is no less important.”

The Senate’s budget gives teachers a 4.5% raise over the next two years and plans to cut the personal and corporate income tax rates, making the personal rate 4.5% by 2024, which Cooper cited primarily as a “tax break for millionaires.”

The House had suggested 10.2% raises for teachers in the biennium, and Cooper had pushed for 18% in the budget concept he provided earlier in the spring. Senators cite the $34.8 billion budgeted for education these next two years as a strong investment.

“The Senate has given veteran teachers a $250 raise spread over two years,” Cooper said. “That’s a slap in the face and will make our teacher shortage worse.”

The House soon will reject the Senate’s budget, which will begin a conference process to achieve compromise. Cooper’s veto pen eventually will get another test.

And that window of opportunity is why Cooper is imploring the public to get involved now, while there still could be an impact.

“I’m fighting back, and I need you to, too,” Cooper said. He directed the public to his website, where a banner links to information about the situation and coaches the public on how “you can connect with your state legislators and tell them to support public education.

A banner atop the website directs the public to information about the state of emergency for public education. (WGHP)

“Commit to call, write or visit with legislators. Our children need us right now,” he said.

Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) responded quickly with a statement from his spokesperson.

“Meaningless publicity stunts do nothing to improve educational outcomes in our state,” Randy Brechbiel of the Senate President Pro Tempore’s office wrote in response to a query from WGHP. “The House and Senate will continue working together to put forward budget proposals that address the needs of students and parents.”

Voucher expansion

Unsurprisingly Cooper’s first salvo was aimed at the school voucher program, which Republicans in the House and the Senate both voted to expand to all levels of income, not just the poorer residents who originally were to be helped with tuition to private schools.

House Bill 823 passed last week, and its twin, Senate Bill 406, also has moved along. The Senate’s budget includes the so-called “opportunity scholarships.”

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) (WGHP)
Rep. Tricia Cotham (R-Mecklenburg) (NCGA)

New Republican Rep. Tricia Cotham of Mecklenburg County said vouchers are “important to so many families. Education is not ‘one size fits all.’ I am a strong supporter of traditional public schools, of charter schools and private schools.”

Even U.S. Sen. Thom Tills (R-NC), a former speaker of the state House, responded to Cooper on Twitter by saying, “’Opportunity Scholarships’ have opened doors for thousands of children in NC to receive a high-quality education. Families deserve to have more freedom, not more fearmongering and special interest-driven mandates from liberal politicians.”

Cooper, for his part, said the expansion meant that “even a millionaire can get taxpayer money for private academy tuition.”

He said such investments would shrink the budget for public education by 20% and that he had heard from cash-strapped school districts that may have to “eliminate Early College, AP courses, arts and sports” to meet their budgets. He did not mention the long-litigated Leandro case to fund public education that lawmakers have fought and the courts continue to police.

Cooper said the students bounced back from the learning loss during the COVID-19 pandemic because of the investment of $5 billion in emergency federal funding, and he cautioned in backing away from such investments.

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“A strong state economy is built on strong schools at every level. Investments in schools work,” he said.

Other issues

In his presentation, Cooper also cited:

  • 5,000 teacher vacancies that need to be breached, which is where he said the average pay raises exacerbated the problem. Senators have touted raising the starting pay level significantly to address the need to recruit and an investment in educational programs for teachers.
  • The need to invest in early childhood education, about which he said lawmakers were “turning their backs on children, parents and the businesses that want to hire those parents.” Lawmakers have included some funding for childcare assistance in their budgets.
  • The “political culture wars” that he said would put “politicians in charge of curriculum-setting, micromanage what teachers can teach and target LGBTQ+ students.” He mentioned the elimination of some science classes and the restructuring of history curricula.

“The North Carolina I know was built on support for public schools,” he said. “We can’t let the legislature tear them down.”