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Perspective | Childhood literacy shouldn’t be a partisan issue

In October 2017, I asked my staff to dig into the underlying issues surrounding the implementation and progress of Read to Achieve, a program that I, together with others, championed to ensure that North Carolina’s students can read by the end of third grade. Data conclusively shows this is critical to a child’s future success in school and ultimately in life.

At that time, DPI had recently published a report showing continued stagnation of third grade reading scores and, since the state has been funding this program annually since 2012, we needed to find out what we could do to improve the program and student outcomes. Over the next 22 months, an unprecedented collaboration occurred through which we meticulously crafted, revised, debated, and ultimately passed the Excellent Public Schools Act of 2019.

There’s lots of talk nowadays about making sure that everyone “comes to the table” to discuss policy issues. The Excellent Public Schools Act of 2019 is a textbook definition of bringing everyone to the table, and yet, on Aug. 23, 2019, Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed this bill.

In the course of drafting and refining the bill, my office engaged the most bipartisan group of stakeholders that I have ever seen work on a single piece of legislation. Here are the people and organizations that we worked with:

  • J.B. Buxton, member of the State Board of Education appointed by Gov. Cooper
  • State Superintendent Mark Johnson
  • Brock Womble, Executive Director of the NC Center for the Advancement of Teaching
  • Pam Shue, former Associate NC Superintendent for Early Education
  • Tara Galloway, K3 Literacy Director at the Department of Public Instruction
  • Munro Richardson, Executive Director of Read Charlotte
  • Mary Ann Danowitz, Dean of NC State University’s College of Education
  • Sens. Deanna Ballard, R-Alleghany, Rick Horner, R-Johnston, and Jerry Tillman, R-Guilford — Senate Education chairs
  • Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, House K-12 Education chair
  • Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus
  • Rep. Billy Richardson, D-Cumberland
  • Surry County Schools
  • Mount Airy City Schools
  • Caswell County Schools
  • Stokes County Schools
  • Etowah Elementary School, Henderson County Public Schools
  • Pisgah Elementary School, Buncombe County Schools
  • SAS Institute
  • NC Community Colleges
  • NC Independent Colleges and Universities
  • UNC System staff
  • Anna Spangler Nelson, UNC Board of Governors
  • The Foundation for Excellence in Education

As you can see, this is a large, diverse list of subject matter experts that all had input into the final version of this bill. My staff and I visited schools and colleges, combed through data, and created visualizations to better pinpoint which schools have been successful in improving reading outcomes. We participated in lengthy conference calls and produced 36 drafts and revisions of the bill, each reviewed and modified to improve the final product before the legislation was filed in April.

The point is this — you elect legislators to enact public policy with the input of subject matter experts, regardless of party, and if things work as they should, those legislators craft bills that will make a positive impact on the lives of you and your fellow citizens. In rare instances, we can even put aside partisan politics to get the job done. This bill was one of those times; that is, until it came to Gov. Cooper. The governor’s veto of this important bill, which his administration helped write, deserves to be understood as what it is, and you deserve to know the full story about how we got to this point.

The state’s largest newspapers say the veto wasn’t about policy but was simply because the governor didn’t like the primary sponsor of the bill: me. Early childhood literacy policy fell victim to politics. I cannot for the life of me understand how Gov. Cooper can constantly call for bipartisanship and then veto perhaps the most bipartisan bill I’ve seen in my time in the legislature.

Sen. Phil Berger

Senator Phil Berger is President Pro Tempore of the North Carolina Senate, representing Senate District 30 which includes Rockingham, Stokes, Caswell and Surry Counties. He has served in the state legislature since 2001.