Raleigh, N.C. — The North Carolina Association of Educators announced Wednesday that it will back Democratic candidate Roy Cooper for governor in 2016,
It's highly unusual for advocacy groups to endorse a candidate before the filing period for the race has even closed. The deadline for 2016 races is noon Dec. 21.
Nonetheless, NCAE President Rodney Ellis said that the group's governing board had reviewed all available candidates and had made its decision.
"Therefore, we’ve decided to jump into this race early, get behind our candidate and do everything we can to support their candidacy," Ellis said.
"Public education has taken a step back in recent years. 2016 will be a critical year for our public schools and the future that we can help build for our students. Our public school students deserve better than 46th in the nation in per-pupil spending," he said. "North Carolina is better than this. Every student deserves the opportunity for a high-quality public education, which is why NCAE is endorsing Roy Cooper for governor."
Cooper was on hand for the announcement. The four-term attorney general pledged to focus on restoring education spending, accusing Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and Republican legislative leaders of prioritizing tax cuts while paying "lip service" to the state's schools.
"One of the main reasons I am running for governor is that we have stepped back in public education over the last few years. It is unconscionable that North Carolina ranks last in the Southeast in per-pupil expenditure for our public schools. It is unconscionable that we rank 42nd in the country in teacher pay," Cooper said.
He said he's talked to teachers across the state who are leaving the profession.
"It’s not just for better pay, but it’s for lack of basic respect," he said. "When they talk to me about this, it’s not the lack of respect that they’re getting from parents and the community. It’s a lack of basic respect that they are getting from this governor and this legislative leadership. It is time for that to change."
Asked where he would find the money for teacher pay raises, Cooper said the money is already available to improve those numbers dramatically. But he says Republican leaders have chosen instead to use it for tax cuts that have largely benefited the wealthy and corporations.
"What we need to do is stop the giveaways to those at the top and use it to invest in public education," he said. "It’s a question of priorities. What do you want to do? Do you want to continue to provide for the corporate tax benefits that mostly help out-of-state corporations, or do you want to use that money to invest in public education?
"They have now built in these cuts into the law for years to come," he added. "That needs to stop."
In a statement, McCrory campaign director Billy Constangy responded that the governor "would rather [have] the endorsement of the state's hard-working teachers, parents and taxpayers, not the union leadership."
"Governor McCrory is proud of his record of passing the largest teacher pay increase in the country, increasing education funding to an all-time high and seeing North Carolina's high school graduation rate increase to the best it's ever been," Constangy wrote. "Our campaign will actively seek to earn the endorsement of the union's declining membership who share the governor's vision for higher teacher pay and an improved education system that helps all of our students achieve."
The North Carolina Republican Party also issued a statement blasting NCAE's leaders as "union bosses" and accusing Cooper of striking "a back room deal" with them.
Cooper's Democratic rival, Ken Spaulding, echoed those suspicions, saying he believes the group bowed to pressure from "establishment Democrats" to back Cooper in hopes that Spaulding would drop out of the race.
In a lengthy statement, Spaulding said he respects the NCAE and was interviewed by the group's governing committee. However, he said, the timing of the announcement is "very strange."
"The Democratic Party's establishment wing's continued effort to 'strong arm' the people of our Party and Unaffiliated voters across this state is the very reason why the Republican Party has gained control of the positions of U.S. Senate, Governor, Lt. Governor, N.C. House and N.C. Senate and many other offices," Spaulding wrote.
"The endorsement by the NCAE will not deter me from filing for Governor," he added, "and will not deter me from fighting for our rank-and-file public school teachers to reinstate 'teacher tenure' and will oppose 'private school vouchers' which are bleeding money away from our public schools."