So when news spread over social media Monday that Gov. Pat McCrory had at last conceded a bitterly contested gubernatorial race to Cooper—three weeks and six days after Election Day—it’s fitting that the 70,000-member political arm of teachers across North Carolina was one of the first to trumpet the news.
“North Carolina educators are Ready for Roy,” NCAE President Mark Jewell said in a statement, harkening to one of the state attorney general’s well-trod campaign slogans.
“Finally,” Jewell says he thought to himself when he watched McCrory’s taped concession , in which the Republican candidate urged North Carolinians to support Gov.-elect Cooper’s transition, which had been underway for days before McCrory acknowledged his defeat.
Two days later, Jewell seems willing to exhale, although he acknowledged many battles loom for the organization, which has clashed publicly with members of the still GOP-controlled N.C. General Assembly and McCrory’s office over education funding .
“Teachers around the state have seen attacks on public education under Gov. McCrory,” Jewell said
As of this year, North Carolina ranks just 41st in the nation in teacher pay, 50th in school administrator pay and 46th in per-pupil spending.
Cooper campaigned aggressively on public education, hammering McCrory for lagging funding and pay in North Carolina, which has reported thousands of teachers flocking to other, better-paying states in the last decade . He also publicly opposed private school vouchers, a controversial program that saw a hefty expansion in North Carolina’s budget this year .
And he urged the state to restore funding for textbooks and teaching assistants while prioritizing early childhood education—all of it a smorgasbord of wish list items for public education advocates.
Public education backers such as Jewell say expectations will have to be obviously tempered, with a veto-proof GOP majority in the legislature still holding much of the power over the state’s budget, but it’s worth noting that the governor’s office typically sets the agenda for budget negotiations by presenting its proposed spending plan first.
As Policy Watch reported, McCrory’s office launched budget talks in a controversial manner this fall , asking for all departments, including the public schools, to offer up possible spending plans with 2 percent cuts—or about $173 million in the case of public schools—despite an expected revenue surplus.
McCrory’s office later backtracked on that proposal . Meanwhile, Cooper’s office, once it has completed the transition, is expected to begin the discussion much differently, although representatives for the governor-elect aren’t talking specifics yet.
“Governor-elect Cooper will use all the tools he can to support strong schools and better pay and respect for teachers, and that will certainly include the state budget,” Ken Eudy, executive director of Cooper’s transition team told Policy Watch this week.
“…As he has said all year, North Carolina needs strong public education to spark its economy. The way to give kids a world class education and pay teachers more is by setting the right priorities from the start.”
Eudy said Cooper has been in contact with the incoming public schools superintendent, Winston-Salem Republican Mark Johnson , and members of the State Board of Education , a panel of gubernatorial appointees with broad powers over administering public schools in the state.
Six members of the board, including Chairman Bill Cobey, will see their terms expire with Cooper in office, although the governor’s appointments require confirmation in the legislature, a process that was once purely academic. Republican leaders in the legislature refused to acknowledge appointments to the board from former Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue  near the conclusion of her tenure in office.
This week, longtime Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson, ousted by a narrow margin on Election Day , said Cooper faces a daunting task in pushing his public education plan, although she said Cooper “is on the right side” when it comes to teacher pay and private school vouchers, the latter of which Atkinson believes will deal great damage to public schools.
“I know it’ll be a challenge for him to move forward with his priorities,” Atkinson said.
Atkinson has experience negotiating with a divided state government, taking part in bitterly divided budget discussions between Perdue’s office and the new Republican majority in the legislature in 2011.
She said her strategy was to first understand legislators’ perspectives, then try to persuade lawmakers behind the scenes to see the value of public education funding.
Make compromises where you can, Atkinson suggested to Cooper, encouraging officials in the governor’s office to seek out the more moderate elements of the opposing party.
“But when you compromise you have to have two willing parties,” she added. “And when you don’t have that, you have to use the bully pulpit to help the people of North Carolina see that we need a change.”
Meanwhile, Jewell said he hopes Cooper will focus on both the big-ticket political battles—teacher pay, et al—as well as some of the more overlooked crises for North Carolina schools, including funding for some of the most basic items, textbooks and school supplies.
Jewell added that, while Cooper will have to “make friends in both parties,” he said public education advocates like himself are looking for a badly-needed “champion” in the Executive Mansion.
“His messaging is about making North Carolina work for everyone, not just the 1 percent at the top,” said Jewell. “That’s what is so exciting about his election.”