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Gov. Roy Cooper encouraged a room of administrators Friday to be bold in their advocacy for public education as he accepted the North Carolina Association of School Administrators’ 2019 Champion for Children Award at the organization’s annual leadership conference in Raleigh.

“There’s a lot for you to lobby for,” Cooper said. “There’s a lot for you to advocate for. I would recommend that we be loud and strong, that we encourage the business communities back home to talk bout the importance of public education: early childhood, K-12, in addition to our community colleges and our universities that are so crucial to this workforce.”

Cooper’s comments come after this week’s announcement of a teacher rally in Raleigh on May 1, similar to the event last year that drew thousands of teachers and education advocates to the General Assembly organized by the N.C. Association of Educators. His acceptance speech focused on strengthening both the teacher workforce and, in turn, the state’s future workforce.

Cooper touted education aspects of his budget, released earlier this month, including an average 9.1 percent teacher salary boost, increased pay for educators with master’s degrees, and an expanded teaching fellows program that pays for the college education of teachers who commit to teaching in public schools for four years. 

“What we need is an honest budget that makes sure everybody gets an increase because we have to give people incentive,” Cooper said, saying his teacher salary schedule includes increases for veteran teachers. “We need better professional development for the teachers who know they can move up the rung and be compensated for that, restoring master’s pay, making sure we restore the respect of the profession.”

NCASA Executive Director Katherine Joyce said Cooper received the award due to his dedication to raising salaries, pushing for school safety, and helping schools recover from Hurricane Florence.

“His tireless commitment to our public schools and their students is outstanding, making him worth of recognition as a true Champion for Children,” Joyce said. While presenting the award, Joyce also referenced Cooper’s support for a bond referendum to fund school construction and repairs.

Cooper’s budget backs a $3.9 billion bond referendum for building and renovating K-12 schools, community colleges, and universities. The House is proposing a $1.9 billion bond for the same purposes. The Senate is instead proposing a $6 billion plan by increasing state revenue funds that go into the State Capital and Infrastructure Fund (SCIF) from 4 to 4.5 percent, then giving those funds to K-12 schools, institutions of higher education, and other state agencies.

“It’s time for the state to step up and provide a robust school construction bond,” Cooper said Friday. “We need a bond because, number one, it lets the people decide, number two, it says this is what we’re going to do, this is how much everybody’s going to get. It’s not susceptible to the whims of future legislators. Hammers can start swinging. We take advantage of the low interest rate.”

Cooper emphasized the need for businesses to value and invest in the system that is preparing their future employees, from “cradle to career.” He said resources are needed to make changes, which is part of the reason he supports expanding Medicaid, which would bring federal funds and new jobs to the state. He said the legislature should end tax breaks for corporations and instead pitch businesses on the importance of high-quality teachers.

“Hey, let’s stop talking about that and let’s start talking about what you need, and that is an educated, top-flight workforce for the ever-changing jobs that are out there that are more challenging,” Cooper said. “Teaching is harder than it’s ever been, because they have to know more and you have to be on the top of your game. So we have to be intentional as a state about making sure that we have real professionals in our public school system and that we treat them as such.”

Cooper referenced the work of his Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education, which will release its final report in the coming months detailing how the state should meet its constitutional mandate to provide every child with equal educational opportunity. In response to a question from EducationNC after his remarks, Cooper said he has had conversations with legislators to see what action can come from the commission’s work. He said he expects the State Board of Education to welcome the commission’s findings, and that he is hopeful for what the end of Republican supermajority could mean for this year’s budget.

“I think with the new balance that we have in the General Assembly, and the ability to negotiate more about what the budget will be, I think we have a better opportunity to do more,” he said.

He said he has disagreed with Republican legislative leaders on many education policies, but that the quality of educators is one point of consensus across the aisle.

“The bipartisan agreement that we’ve come to is that a good teacher in every classroom and a good principal in every school improves public education. Period.”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.