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At his old school, term-limited North Carolina governor takes new tack on public education funding

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper sits for an interview with WUNC in the Executive Mansion in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018.
Ben McKeown
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper sits for an interview with WUNC in the Executive Mansion in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018. Proclaiming 2024 as "The Year of Public Schools," Gov. Roy Cooper said he would attempt to bring outside pressure upon General Assembly leaders to boost K-12 spending, salaries and other programs.

Blocked by Republican legislators at most every turn to advance his education agenda, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper said on Tuesday he'd seek in his final year on the job to build a coalition to prod the General Assembly to improve public schools toward his policy preferences.

Visiting his boyhood elementary school before formally proclaiming 2024 as "The Year of Public Schools," Cooper said he would attempt to bring outside pressure upon General Assembly leaders to boost K-12 spending, salaries and other programs.

"We're going to talk about the great work that our public schools are doing and how they can get even better," Cooper said at Nashville Elementary School, which he attended through seventh grade and lived blocks away. Nashville is about 50 miles (80) kilometers) northeast of Raleigh, the state capital.

While highlighting statewide high graduation rates, a strong pre-kindergarten program and teacher accomplishments, the governor said North Carolina's continued economic vibrancy is threatened by low per-pupil spending and beginning teacher pay. And a dramatic expansion of the state's private-school voucher program will cost $4 billion in cumulative taxpayer dollars over the next decade, he said.

More than eight out of 10 school-age children attend public schools, Cooper's office said.

"Our success in economic development today is a direct result of the reverence of public education over the decades," Cooper said in the school's library, but "our strong public schools are at risk, and if we don't act, our children and grandchildren will bear the consequences."

Cooper likened his effort in part to his campaign since taking office in 2017 to get the GOP-controlled legislature to expand Medicaid coverage to hundreds of thousands of low-income adults. That included building an alliance of health leaders, county sheriffs, commissioners and business owners from both major parties.

Expansion just took effect just last month.

Cooper is term-limited from seeking reelection, and the General Assembly likely will adjourn for the year by early summer. And since Republicans hold narrow veto-proof majorities, they are under no obligation to work with Cooper on legislation.

He acknowledged the education effort likely will continue after he leaves office.

"There's no question this is a long-term battle because it's going to be a long-term fix," Cooper said. "We need to highlight the positives of public schools, which are numerous, and on top of that understand they are operating on shoestring budgets and won't stay good if we don't provide the proper funding."

The governor's reframed pitch comes a year after taking another tack that Republicans responded to with ridicule and resulted in few successes within the final two-year state budget. Last May, Cooper declared an unofficial "state of emergency" for public education and urged the public to tell their legislators to reject GOP-backed education policy, spending and tax measures.

But in the end, the budget enacted in October will greatly expand the state's K-12 private school scholarship program so that families of any income level could receive financial help.

"I am not against private schools, but I am against taxpayer money going to private schools at the expense of public schools," he said on Tuesday.

Republican Rep. Allen Chesser of Nash County, who attended the event in his legislative capacity, afterward defended the GOP's record on education and rejected Cooper's argument that the scholarships siphoned money away from public schools.

Republicans argue it's appropriate for the state to provide financial help to families to ensure their children can succeed in private or religious schools.

While Cooper and Republicans "disagree on some nuanced funding mechanisms, we totally agree on the importance of public education," Chesser said. "I think (the GOP) budget has done that. We can always do better and we can endeavor to do better."

The governor will propose budget adjustments as the legislature begins its work session in late April. On Tuesday, he urged the public to tell legislators to halt funding for the Opportunity Scholarship program until public schools are "fully funded" and to "pay teachers like the professionals they are."

The teacher raises in the two-year budget were far below what Cooper wanted — average K-12 teacher salaries would grow by at least 7% over two years, compared to the 18% that Cooper had proposed.

The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in 2022 that hundreds of millions of dollars could be transferred without the General Assembly's express approval from government coffers to carry out a plan to address longstanding education inequities. But a new edition of the Supreme Court — now with a majority of Republican justices — will consider the matter again next month.

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