North Carolina's governor used the launch of a school supply drive on Tuesday to argue that the GOP has been inadequately funding education, forcing too many teachers to have to use their own money to buy pencils and paper for their students.
One of the Democratic governor's most recent fights with the Republican-led General Assembly was over a state budget that he said spent too little on education, among other concerns. He issued the second-ever veto of a North Carolina budget, but lawmakers overrode him in June.
The statewide school supply drive was needed in response to the budget, Cooper said. He noted that lawmakers rejected his proposal to use about $13 million of the state's funds to give public school teachers an annual $150 stipend for school supplies.
"This (drive) is being done because it's a necessity," Cooper said during a news conference at Pearsontown Elementary School. "They didn't include this $150 in the budget. They haven't been providing enough resources for our schools. Teachers should not have to dig into their own pockets to pay for paper and pencils and pens and tissues for their classrooms."
Fifth grade teacher Corin Muller said her class is in good shape with supplies, but that it's not without help. The Durham-based Crayons2Calculators offers local teachers a chance to "shop" at a warehouse of donated supplies. Schools also sometimes receive individual donations.
"A lot of parents get our supply list and then they'll provide for the classroom and send in extra sets of supplies," Muller said.
That is what Cooper is asking others to do. The school supply drive will run from Aug. 14 through the first week of September. People can donate classroom supplies at any branch of the State Employees Credit Union and government buildings. The most-needed items include pencils, pens, paper, dry-erase markers and tissues.
"Far too often, teachers are having to dip into their own pockets to cover the cost of classroom supplies, supplies that their students need to learn, and supplies that the state currently is not providing for them," Cooper said.
Cooper says ultimately, he wants to see these kinds of drives end.
Legislative leaders have argued that this year's budget increased education spending by nearly $700 million, gave raises to teachers and included items that Cooper had sought — such as expanded pre-kindergarten for at-risk 4-year-olds.
Republican Rep. Craig Horn, a co-chairman of the House Education Appropriations Committee, said Tuesday that he's spoken to teachers around the state who have given good reviews to the latest education budget. He said education appropriations have consistently increased since 2011, but he acknowledged that there's always room for improvement.
"Frankly there's never enough money for education," he said by phone. "Many people would like to see the entire state budge turned over to education. That's fine until you call 911 and they don't have any funding."
Horn agreed that teachers shouldn't have to spend their own money on classroom supplies, but argued that politicizing the issue isn't the solution.
"How about let's focus on the kids and student outcomes instead of trying to blame people?" he said.
Horn said Cooper's office never reached out to him during the budgeting process. But Cooper argued that his staff's efforts to publicly compare their proposed budget with what lawmakers were crafting kept up pressure for increased education spending.
On Tuesday, Cooper toured several classrooms at the year-round school in Durham where classes started in July. After watching a group of first-graders turn and give a warm greeting to the person next to them, the governor quipped: "That's what the General Assembly needs to do. That would help a lot."