NCAE stands in the schoolhouse door

Partisan tribalism keeps kids out of the classroom

“The far-left NCAE controls education policy at the governor’s mansion and in the Democratic caucus, and some students will never recover from the destruction they’ve caused.”

Sen. Deanna Ballard, a Watauga County Republican and the chair of the Senate Education Committee, said this about the state’s largest teacher union Monday night after Democrats — with one exception — stood in unison and voted to sustain Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of Senate Bill 37. Every Republican was in the Senate chamber and voted to override. Even so, the attempt fell one vote short. The bill is dead.

I’ve listened to or witnessed dozens, maybe hundreds, of legislative floor debates over the past dozen years. Monday’s was the first one I’ve heard that was overshadowed by a spirit of desperation. Sadness. Resignation.

I wrote Monday was the biggest day of Cooper’s political career. Democrats bailed him out, leaving students on the boat. The N.C. Association of Educators held a news conference Monday afternoon saying guidelines from the state’s health department were too lax to let elementary teachers return to school full-time.

Democrats listened. They obeyed. They sustained the veto, leaving in place a regime that lets K-12 public school districts impose only virtual learning, even if individual school leaders and parents would rather shift to a hybrid or full-time classroom model.

Two of the three Democrats who supported the bill initially reversed course. Sen. Ben Clark, D-Hoke, a sponsor of the bill, didn’t show for the vote. Sen. Paul Lowe, D-Forsyth, said Monday afternoon he would switch stances and back Cooper. Only Sen. Kirk deViere, D-Cumberland, held fast and voted both to pass the bill and reject the governor’s veto.

Lowe’s decision apparently sealed the bill’s fate. That may have been why the floor discussion was brief — less than 30 minutes — and lifeless. 

Ballard discussed the toll virtual schooling has taken on students’ mental health. She mentioned a call she got from the parent of a student in Iredell-Statesville Schools. The student had died by suicide, leaving a note, reading, “COVID.” 

She discussed the stunning test results the State Board of Education will review later this week. More than half of the state’s high school seniors flunked their end-of-course tests; 75% of third-graders can’t read at grade level.

Senate leader Phil Berger, repeating a comment from earlier that day, said he hoped Democrats who initially had backed the bill wouldn’t change their position merely for “politics.”

Perhaps the most puzzling performance came from the Democrats’ only speaker, Minority Leader Dan Blue. Depending on the issue, he can be passionate. He can be lawyerly. He can be relentlessly logical. 

But I’d never heard him be rambling or incoherent. Until Monday.

While saying it was important to reopen the schools, he wanted to make sure they were done so safely, based on science — the bill relies on guidelines from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. He worried about COVID variants, saying something along the line of viruses try to survive, too.

Then, from nowhere, he brought up the lack of new money in the bill, saying before schools open, the General Assembly should expand school staffing and address Leandro, the nearly three-decade-old lawsuit on school funding equity that would require an extra $427 million the first year — and dropped off the radar when the pandemic struck.

It’s as if Blue knew the NCAE would prevail, but his caucus had to phone in a defense of the veto. So he did.

Share Deregulator

No telling what’ll happen next. After the vote, Berger told reporters he couldn’t say what might be in a new bill. But “I don’t think we’ll just say, ‘that’s it.’” 

One option is to pass the provisions of S.B. 37 in several “local bills” that affect only a few counties. Cooper can’t veto local bills. And only about 20 of the state’s 115 school districts have refused to hold any in-person classes this academic year.

Ballard suggested the General Assembly could go bigger. It’ll look at a bill providing money to let low- and middle-income families remove their kids from their assigned public school. “For too many families, the public education bureaucracy is failing them.”

You want a lively debate? Bring it on.

Cooper could have prevented the showdown by using his executive authority to eliminate Plan C — online learning only — and let districts decide how to get kids back in school. He didn’t.

Ballard noted hypocrisy from Cooper about reliance on the CDC. The federal agency says schools should open for in-person instruction before “non-essential” businesses such as restaurants and bars are allowed to have patrons seated indoors. Last week, Cooper reopened bars. Not schools.

But schools have a powerful lobby that provides campaign cash and volunteer muscle for Democrats. The state’s top Democrat carries its water. 

After Monday’s vote, reporters asked Lowe why he changed his vote. He said Cooper called him Sunday night.

“He asked. I am a Democrat. He’s the governor, and a Democratic governor.”

Besides, he said, schools in Forsyth County, which he represents, are open.

Let ‘em eat cake.

On the pod!

Thanks to longtime N.C. journalist and podcaster Pete Kaliner, who invited me to talk about the override vote on his weekly podcast. You can click on it below. Subscribe away!

Also, I’ll make my regular weekly appearance at 7:40 Wednesday morning with Scott Briggaman on “The Triangle’s Morning News,” WPTF 680 AM/98.5 FM. Tune in or stream online. It’s a lot of fun.