Featured photo: Gov. Roy Cooper presents his biennium budget plan on March 15, 2023. (photo by Alex Granados/EducationNC)

This story was originally published by Education NC, story by Liz Bell

Gov. Roy Cooper in a virtual address Monday criticized the legislature’s education proposals, including small teacher pay increases for veteran teachers and the expansion of public vouchers for private schools. He called on North Carolinians to inform themselves on recent proposed changes and contact their legislators.

“It’s time to declare a state of emergency for public education in North Carolina,” Cooper said in a live stream on his YouTube channel. “There’s no executive order, like with a hurricane or a pandemic, but it’s no less important. It’s clear that the Republican legislature is aiming to choke the life out of public education.”

The Senate budget proposal, released last week, would drastically expand the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides public money for students to attend private schools. Private schools don’t have the same accountability to taxpayers as public schools, Cooper said, “and can decide which students they want to keep out.”

The proposal allocates $105 million in additional recurring funds in 2023-24 to the scholarship program, $163 million the next year, and increased amounts in consecutive years. By 2031-32, the state would be spending $505 million in recurring funds for the program.

The plan also removes income eligibility requirements for the program, meaning any student could receive up to 45% of their private school tuition from the fund. The program currently targets low-income students.

“When kids leave public school for private school, the public schools lose hundreds of millions of dollars,” Cooper said. “And while they hand out private school vouchers to millionaires, they also want to give them large tax breaks too.”

A fiscal note from the Office of State Budget and Management (OSBM) published two weeks ago said the expansion would decrease total state funding for public schools by $203.8 million if half of new voucher recipients previously attended public school.

“Public school superintendents are telling me they’ll likely have to cut schools to the bone, eliminate early college, AP, and gifted courses, art, music, sports if the legislature keeps draining funds to pay for private schools and those massive tax breaks,” Cooper said.

Cooper also criticized the Senate budget’s teacher pay schedule and early care and education items.

The Senate plan would give a 10.8% increase for beginning K-12 teachers. For teachers with 14 or more years of experience, the new salary schedule would amount to a $20 raise per month.

“That’s slap in the face, and it’ll make the teacher shortage worse,” Cooper said Monday.

The Senate budget directs leftover federal funds to continue child care teacher compensation grants but does not provide new state funding to do so. The early childhood caucus was requesting $300 million to help child care programs avoid a financial cliff after federal pandemic investments. The federal funding pot mentioned in the budget has $60 million left, according to a spokesperson from the Department of Health and Human Services.

The budget plan also carves out funds included in Senate Bill 20 for the child care subsidy program: $32 million recurring in 2023-24 and $43 million recurring in 2024-25. The legislature overrode the governor’s veto of that bill, which restricts abortion access, last week.

Cooper said these items do not do enough for young children and families.

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

“Smart investments in education work,” Cooper said, pointing to students’ learning recovery after the infusion of federal pandemic relief funds. He called for individuals to contact their legislators to support public schools.

“Public schools can survive this legislative session if we can limit the damage, but we all need to pull together to do it,” he said.

Cooper will be traveling this week “to talk about the public education crisis in our state and encourage North Carolinians to contact their legislators to protect public schools,” said Jordan Monaghan, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, in an email.

You can find more on the governor’s website. You can watch the full address here.

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