Why Cooper vetoed Berger’s reading bill. It wasn’t really about reading.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the Excellent Public Schools Act of 2019 sent a particularly pointed message. He wasn’t just rejecting a bill designed to improve the state’s lagging Read to Achieve program. He was sending a message to the bill’s sponsor — Senate leader Phil Berger.

The two leaders are locked in a standoff over the state budget. Cooper wants it to include Medicaid expansion and hefty raises for public school teachers. Berger doesn’t want Medicaid expansion and supports smaller teacher raises. Neither side has blinked, but with Friday’s veto the Democratic governor gave the Republican leader a poke. He made it clear that the budget impasse will have consequences for Berger’s wider agenda.

Bill D’Elia, a spokesman for Berger, indicated that the message was not missed. He said in a statement: “The real reason Governor Cooper blocked this early childhood reading program is because of the name of the bill sponsor: Phil Berger.”

The Read to Achieve program, part of multiple education changes passed in the Excellent Public Schools Act of 2012, is Berger’s signature education legislation. Modeled on a Florida plan — “Just Read, Florida” — adopted under former Gov. Jeb Bush in 2001, Read to Achieve aims to end promotion of students who cannot read at grade level by the end of third grade. Those still behind receive additional instruction and can attend summer reading camps.

The emphasis on reading showed results in Florida, but the North Carolina version is showing the opposite. The passing rate on the state’s third-grade reading exams dropped from 60.2% in the 2013-14 school year to 55.9% in the 2017-18 school year. And that’s after the state has spent $151 million on the program, mostly on digital devices children use at summer reading camps.

Berger pushed the program through in 2012, but now that it is struggling he added educators’ recommended changes in the Excellent Public Schools Act of 2019. Cooper, however, said the Read to Achieve effort is a mess that needs more than tweaks and changes in how its effectiveness is measured. Said the governor in a statement: “This legislation tries to put a Band-Aid on a program where implementation has clearly failed.”

Cooper’s action put politics ahead of a Read to Achieve remedy. The program may be failing, but his veto won’t end it and certainly doesn’t fix it. The proposed revisions reflected the lessons of experience and have support from some educators and Democrats, most notably J.B. Buxton, one of Cooper’s appointees to the State Board of Education.

But Cooper is playing a longer game. He’s showing the collateral costs of Berger’s and House Speaker Tim Moore’s unwillingness to give on Medicaid expansion and give more on education funding.

Among those costs may be a delay in another, larger change backed by Berger — the conversion of the state’s Medicaid program from fee for service to managed care. The Senate leader has long supported the change as a way to stabilize the state’s biggest expense. Rather than pay for medical care based on bills submitted by providers, the new approach will award a fixed amount to health care companies and local groups of medical providers. The Medicaid contractors keep the savings if costs are lower and absorb the extra expense when costs spike.

But the money to pay for the conversion to managed care won’t be there until a new budget is approved and deadlines for the change are looming. If Berger wants to see the existing Medicaid program changed and his reading program approved he may have to grant Cooper’s priorities too.