Gov. Cooper Vetoes Bill Designed to Retool Reading Program

Aug 24, 2019

Gov. Cooper
Credit NC Government

RALEIGH, N.C. — Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed a bill on Friday designed to clean up a North Carolina student reading comprehension program championed for years by Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican.

While this veto marked the third issued in as many days from Cooper, it could be the one most vexing for Republicans and for Berger, who is ostensibly the governor's top political rival. The two already are engaged in an impasse over the state budget, which was supposed to be enacted nearly two months ago, and whether to expand Medicaid.

Friday's veto blocked efforts to retool the "Read to Achieve" program that began in 2013. It seeks to ensure students are reading-proficient before they complete third grade — otherwise they could be held back. But a 2018 North Carolina State University study found no benefit on reading scores from the program that had received over $150 million.

The bill in part directs teachers to create tailored individual reading plans for at-risk children, seeks more literacy training for teachers and gives them incentives to work in summer reading camps.

In his veto message, Cooper described the bill as putting a "Band-Aid on a program where implementation has clearly failed."

"Teaching children to read well is a critical goal for their future success, but recent evaluations show that Read to Achieve is ineffective and costly," Cooper said. Berger has said Read to Achieve works well in some places and needs adjustments elsewhere.

A recent dustup between competing reading diagnostic technology companies and the Republican state schools superintendent also "adds to uncertainty for educators and parents," Cooper wrote. Some Democratic legislators were unhappy that an amendment allowing local school boards to decide which diagnostic tools their teachers could use was left out of the final bill.

Berger's office quickly accused Cooper of issuing the veto only because it's from Berger. The additional proof, according to a Berger news release: Democratic State Board of Education member J.B. Buxton, whom Cooper appointed, helped write the initial bill and attended a news conference in April supporting it.

"The governor's own administration helped write this bill because helping kids learn to read wasn't a partisan issue — until now," spokesman Bill D'Elia said. "The real reason Gov. Cooper blocked this early childhood reading program is because of the name of the bill sponsor: Phil Berger."

Legislators will have to decide whether to override the measure. The difficulty may come in the House, where only three Democrats supported the final bill. Republicans likely would need a few more Democrats to join them, since GOP majorities in the General Assembly aren't veto-proof.

Cooper has now issued 35 vetoes since taking office in early 2017 and seven this year. During the first two years of his term, Republicans overrode nearly all of his vetoes because they had larger majorities in both chambers.