With legislature reconvening, Gov. Cooper pushes strong public school budget for North Carolina

Gov. Roy Cooper, right, before he laid out an aggressive pro-public education agenda Wednesday.

Hours before members of the N.C. General Assembly were scheduled to reconvene Wednesday, Gov. Roy Cooper called on state leadership to unite behind a strong, pro-public education budget that raises pay for educators, funds schools equitably and restores a lauded teaching scholarship program discarded by lawmakers six years ago.

“Your budget reflects your priorities, no matter how much you talk about something,” said Cooper.

The Democratic governor, who has been bitterly at odds with the GOP-dominated legislature since taking office in the new year, was participating in a special taping of the WRAL’s “Education Matters” program with the nonpartisan Public School Forum of N.C., a Raleigh-based education policy and research group.

“I’m a product of the public schools, and I am so proud of that,” said Cooper.

The Public School Forum was in the midst of rolling out their annual top 10 education issues for 2017, which includes strong education leadership, fair school funding, teaching incentives, race issues and, notably, renewed support for some of the state’s lowest-performing schools, many of which can be found in the state’s poorest regions.

Wednesday’s forum attracted a handful of lawmakers and many of the state’s top education policymakers, although noticeably absent was Mark Johnson, the state’s newly-elected Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Cooper campaigned on a robust public education platform, and his comments Wednesday echoed many of those tenets, urging Republican lawmakers to find common ground with him and improve what he described as “slipping” public schools in the state.

“When it comes to public policy issues, the people expect us to roll up our sleeves, sit down at a table and find ways that we can agree,” Cooper said. “There are going to be hundreds of ways that we can find consensus and work together as long as we all act like adults. One of the things we can all agree on: We aren’t paying our teachers and principals enough, period.”

Last year, national reports placed North Carolina at a lowly 41st in teacher pay and 50th in administrator pay.

Cooper said legislators must find ways to “make the teaching profession attractive again,” pointing out Republican lawmakers in 2011 moved to discard the state’s popular Teaching Fellows program, which, since 1986, provided thousands of college scholarships to prospective North Carolina teachers in return  for a four-year commitment to teach in the state.

Funding for the program, at the legislature’s behest, completely evaporated in 2015. 

“It was a tool that was worth the money,” said Cooper Wednesday. “And the payback was significant. We’ve got to start it in some way.”

Cooper added that the state could phase in a revamped version of Teaching Fellows, either offering a scholarship or stipends to coerce teachers to work in low-performing schools and in hard-to-staff subject areas.

Leaders at the Public School Forum, which once ran the program, also chided legislators for abandoning the nationally-recognized Teaching Fellows, which boasted a strong track record of success.

As supporters have pointed out, nearly 80 percent of the state’s roughly 8,500 Teaching Fellow graduates remained in classrooms when their four-year commitment was up. Two-thirds were still teaching six years later.

“We need to speak up when something needs to be done,” said Keith Poston, president & CEO of the Public School Forum. “And the state made a mistake when it eliminated the N.C. Teaching Fellow Program.”

Perhaps the day’s lightest moment came when Poston donned a red, “Make Teaching in N.C. Great Again” cap, echoing President Trump’s campaign. “I hope we don’t get sued for this,” Poston joked.

Leaders’ comments come at a time when state officials report scores of North Carolina teachers leaving the profession or seeking work outside of the state. Cooper said he’s taking his message to business leaders in North Carolina, urging them to reach out to lawmakers and make public education a top priority.

“Don’t cut the corporate tax again,” Cooper added. “Instead, raise teacher pay. I believe it is a choice. You cannot do everything, and when you do tax cuts, let’s target the middle class. Let’s target the people who really need it.”

Meanwhile, Cooper seemed to castigate legislators for North Carolina’s rapidly expanding school voucher program, which offers public funds for low-income students to attend private schools, despite documented reports of discrimination against the LGBTQ community among the mostly religious schools.

Cooper bemoaned “the lack of accountability” with the schools, which are offered broad discretion to tailor their own curriculum and exempted from many of the accountability provisions governing public schools.

“We really don’t know what these schools are doing and how they are performing,” said Cooper.

And, although he didn’t cite specific reforms, the governor talked of the state’s need to address chronically low-performing schools in poor regions of North Carolina

“Education is the way out,” he added. “And starting these kids out the right way is a moral responsibility.”

The governor’s comments come with him embroiled in a pending court feud with the GOP legislature over his appointments and a plan to expand Medicaid access in the state. Republican lawmakers moved to sharply curtail the new Democratic governor’s powers in December, days before his swearing in.

Meanwhile, leaders with the Public School Forum seemed aligned with the governor’s points Wednesday, pushing legislators to pursue equitable school funding, invest in early childhood education, hand down “guardrails” for private school vouchers and address conditions in poor schools.

“Poverty is the elephant in the room,” said James Ford, a former N.C. Teacher of the Year who now serves as program director for the forum. “We can’t teach around it or go through it. We have to take stock of it.”

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