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Governor Roy Cooper Tours Jefferson Early Childhood Education Center

Governor Roy Cooper gets to know some of the children at Ashe Developmental Day School. Photo by Zack Hill.

By Zack Hill

Governor Roy Cooper (D) stopped in Jefferson Thursday to tour Ashe Developmental Day School and highlight the need to make investments in early childhood education.

Cooper toured the center as he spoke with staff and met children in their classrooms.

“I know you all have really done good things with the schools and programs here in Ashe County,” Cooper told staff members. “This is such important work you’re doing and I want to get you more help.”

“You have to love the passion you all have. Thank you for what you’re doing.”

Director of Ashe Developmental Day School Rebecca Rash led the tour with N.C. House Representative Ray Pickett (R) of District 93, which includes Watauga, Ashe and Alleghany counties, joining the governor’s group.

Cooper, Pickett and Rash all agreed that early childhood education programs need more funding and that staff for the programs were not receiving adequate and competitive pay.

Governor Cooper visits another classroom. Photo by Zack Hill.

Rash said prospective and current employees can often find jobs at Walmart and other businesses that have better starting pay than the $10 to $12 an hour that the center is able to offer.

“There may not be a larger gap between the quality of person needed for the job and the pay than this one,” Cooper said.

Cooper is concerned that legislation spearheaded by Republicans currently making its way through the General Assembly will leave public schools and programs like Ashe Developmental Day School underfunded while exacerbating the state’s teacher shortage. He noted state public school systems currently have more than 5,000 vacant teacher positions.

The Office of State Budget and Management recently released a report detailing the expected financial fallout from Senate Bill 406/House Bill 823—educational bills that will direct more money towards scholarship programs for students to attend private school.

The report says state funding for public schools would decrease by over 200 million dollars if the bills pass while state-funded scholarships to attend private schools would increase state appropriations by more than 70 million dollars.

“Early childhood education provides children with a strong start, allows parents to work and helps businesses hire employees,” Cooper said. “Republican legislators are threatening North Carolina’s historic economic growth if they fail to invest in childcare.”

Rash said Cooper’s visit showed childhood education is a priority for the governor.

Cooper meets center staff and local representatives of Ashe County. Photo by Zack Hill.

“We greatly appreciate Governor Cooper’s stance on the importance of early childhood education,” Rash said. “We feel like our concerns and needs as a profession are finally being heard.”

Rash said stabilization grants from the state allowed the center to remain open during the pandemic and maintain a high standard of care and education. But those grants run out at the end of the year. 

In a statement, Cooper’s office said the current Senate and House budgets provide “no meaningful support for critical early childhood education and childcare.” 

“The Senate budget fails early learners, their families and businesses by providing no state funding for childcare stabilization grants or the expansion of Smart Start and Pre-K programs. The House budget proposes only minimal funds to increase the childcare subsidy rate and for Smart Start.”

Cooper explained his “triple play” reasoning for the importance of state investment in childcare to a small crowd during a short speech at the end of the tour.

“85 percent of brain formation occurs by age three. Parents need to work and support the family. And businesses need people to hire,” Cooper said. “We need good childcare for all three aspects to work. We need to take the money that’s going to tax cuts for the wealthy and invest in childcare.”

Pickett agreed childcare programs need more funding.

“We need to teach these children because they become educated adults,” Pickett said. “I know the governor is behind us. And we’re all working on coming together for the common good of our children.”

Cooper encouraged those in attendance to contact state senator and senate deputy president pro tempore Ralph Hise (R), representative for Watauga, Ashe, Alleghany, Avery, Caldwell and several other counties, to voice their concerns about funding for public schools and early childhood education. 

Hise introduced SB 406, a major component of the legislation Cooper is concerned about, to the senate earlier this year. With Republicans holding a supermajority in the General Assembly there appears to be little that can stop the passage of SB 406/HB 823.

Cooper recently declared a state of emergency for North Carolina’s public education system saying teacher pay was too low to maintain good teachers, public money shouldn’t be used to send wealthy children to private schools and more investment in early childhood education is needed but will not be funded should the bills pass.

“We are in a crisis,” Cooper said. “Public education is the bedrock of North Carolina’s success. Public education powers our workforce, builds our businesses and boosts our communities. Unfortunately, our public schools are under assault. The current General Assembly is considering extreme legislation that would cripple our public education system.”