Cooper declares ‘state of emergency’ over Republican education policies 

Gov. Roy Cooper speaks at Bicentennial Mall Saturday, May 19, 2023 in Raleigh, N.C.(Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP)

RALEIGH — Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper on Monday said a ‘state of emergency’ exists over the future of North Carolina’s public education. 

“It’s time to declare a state of emergency for public education in North Carolina. There’s no Executive Order like with a hurricane or the pandemic, but it’s no less important,” said Cooper in a six-minute statement. 

“It’s clear that the Republican legislature is aiming to choke the life out of public education. I’m declaring this state of emergency because you need to know what’s happening. If you care about public schools in North Carolina, it’s time to take immediate action and tell them to stop the damage that will set back our schools for a generation,” he continued. 

The governor and his team highlighted three areas they claim are threatened. 

First, Cooper launched an attack on a universal school choice bill expected to be sent to him with a veto-proof margin. That bill, HB 823, would allow the state’s popular Opportunity Scholarship program to be extended on an income-based scale to all families in the state. It passed the N.C. House of Representatives on Wednesday, May 17 and is awaiting action in the N.C. Senate. 

Derisively calling the program a “voucher scheme,” Cooper says tax dollars would be poured into private schools “that are unaccountable to the public and can decide which students they want to keep out.” He also complained that “even millionaires” could get taxpayer money for their children’s tuition.  

A summary of the bill includes a provision stating that no student is awarded more than the required tuition and fees of the school the student attends. 

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tricia Cotham (R-Mecklenburg), countered in a statement. 

“The governor is advocating for systems rather than students themselves. Education is not one-size-fits-all and NC families should have the freedom to determine what kind of education is best for them. My bill to expand the Opportunity Scholarship program, to allow all NC families to make that choice, will soon be on his desk, waiting on his signature. NC kids are waiting, Governor! Stop the political theater and put kids first!”  

Cotham’s support for school choice was well-known prior to her move to the Republican Party in April. That has angered Cooper and his allies, who have worked to oppose those in his party who support school choice. 

That includes former Democratic Rep. Marcus Brandon, who tweeted in response, “Gov Cooper has 0% credibility on this issue. He spent 40k to one of the top private schools and diverted funds from public schools for his daughter. It’s disingenuous and elitist. This is exhibit A why he and Dems continue to lose elections at historic proportions.” 

The second plank of Cooper’s outline was the issue of teacher raises and education staffing levels. 

“The chance to fix our teacher shortage will also evaporate if the legislature chooses corporations over classrooms. We have more than 5,000 teacher vacancies in kindergarten through 12th grade classrooms, leaving tens of thousands of students without a qualified educator. Our students deserve good teachers. That’s why, instead of tax breaks for rich folks and private school vouchers, I’ve proposed a pay raise of 18% over the next two years because our teachers deserve better pay and more respect,” said Cooper in his address. 

In his budget proposal earlier this year, he included a massive spending effort to give teachers a pay bump – more than double the amount he included for state government workers. At an event in Hoke County touting his budget recommendations, he said “I put education number one right now, and we have to do that,” Cooper said about the disparity between teacher and state government raises. 

He criticized the N.C. Senate’s budget as a “tax giveaway” to the wealthy that harms the state’s youngest learners. 

Families and businesses across the state have called for strong investments in early childhood education. But so far, the legislature is turning its back on children, parents and the businesses that want to hire these parents by shortchanging pre-K, Smart Start and quality child care. Our strong state economy is built on strong schools at every level,” said Cooper. 

The N.C. Senate budget, which passed with numerous Democrats voting with all Republicans, spends over $17.2 billion on education in the 2023–24 fiscal year and over $17.6 billion the following year. 

“After more than a decade of responsible fiscal policy North Carolina remains on steady ground as we continue to face economic uncertainty,” Sen. Brent Jackson (R-Sampson), a senior appropriations chair, said his chamber’s funding package. 

N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore’s Communications Director, Demi Dowdy, told North State Journal, “The governor’s political stunts and misinformation are simply counterproductive. The House and Senate are currently hard at work negotiating a budget that will include pay raises for teachers, tax cuts for families, and expands school choice for students.” 

The third plank of Cooper’s criticism of legislative Republicans was an effort to, in his words, “inject culture wars into the classroom.” 

“If they get their way, our State Board of Education will be replaced by political hacks who can dictate what is taught — and not taught — in our public schools. North Carolina schools need rigorous science, reading and math classes, not more politicians policing our children’s curriculum with book bans, elimination of science courses and more” he said, adding that “put together, these ideas spell disaster that requires emergency action. The North Carolina I know was built on support for public schools and we can’t let the legislature tear them down.” 

That appears to be a reference to proposed legislation that would place a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2024 to allow voters to choose the members of the powerful State Board of Education. 

The proposed amendment, which is not certain to even pass both chambers, is being held up by Cooper to claim that politicians would be able to micromanage teachers and target LGBTQ+ students. 

Left out of Cooper’s statement about culture wars are his opposition to both parents’ bill of rights legislation and opposition to forbidding biological males from competing in girls’ sports. 

Two bills from previous sessions that would align with supporting parental involvement in schools were vetoed by the governor.  

A bill titled Ensuring Dignity and Nondiscrimination in Schools, which passed the General Assembly in 2021, would have forbidden the teaching of Critical Race Theory-aligned lessons in schools. In a veto message of that bill, Cooper said the bill pushed “calculated, conspiracy-laden politics in public education.” 

The second, the Free the Smiles Act in early 2022, would have allowed parents to choose whether their children would wear face masks in schools. Cooper vetoed that bill as well, which allowed boards of education around the state to compel masking of students. 

“I’m fighting back, and I need you to do it too. Public schools can survive this legislative session if we can limit the damage, but we all need to pull together to do it,” Cooper said in closing. A statewide tour echoing his unsuccessful effort to enforce a veto of the state’s 12-week abortion limit is expected in the coming days. 

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Matt Mercer is the editor in chief of North State Journal and can be reached at [email protected].