News: CJ Exclusives

Republicans’ effort to overturn veto, reopen schools, falls one vote short

The N.C. General Assembly on Monday, March 1, tried but failed — by one vote, 29-20 — to override the governor’s veto of a bill to reopen schools, even as students — parents, too — suffer, and opinion polls show residents want children back in the classroom.

Cooper’s veto of Senate Bill 37 came about 10 minutes before 5 p.m. Friday, Feb. 26. The General Assembly immediately vowed to override the move, initially indicating a number of Democratic legislators would break ranks and vote in favor of at least partial in-person learning for children.

“Three Democratic senators — Sens. Kirk DeViere, Paul Lowe, and Ben Clark — prioritized children’s interests when the bill passed the first time,” Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said in a news release. “If they stick to their convictions and side again with the overwhelming majority of parents, this bill will almost certainly become law.”

But at least two of the lawmakers instead signaled on social media and through media outlets Monday they would side with the governor.

In a statement, Lowe, D-Forsyth, said: “After some careful consideration, I will be voting to sustain the governor’s veto. Our students and teachers must come back to a healthy learning environment. I hope we can come to a compromise.”

In an email to WRAL, Clark said it would “be prudent” for the General Assembly to make the changes Cooper asked for. Clark asked that he be excused from Monday night’s session. The request was granted.

And that may have been the difference.

Berger, before Monday’s vote, said concerns from Democrats and Cooper were laid out and addressed, and the bill passed. What’s the problem now? he asked. Why the change of heart? Schools aren’t places where the virus spreads unchecked, and studies have shown that, Berger said.

“The current situation is damaging children … in ways that in some respects may be irreparable for some of those children.”

Further, most school personnel will have been vaccinated by the time the bill became effective. Democrats’ vote, he intimated, was based on allegiance, on politics.

Cooper said the measure “threatens public health” and fell short in two critical areas. 

“First, it allows students in middle and high school to go back into the classroom in violation of N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and CDC health guidelines. Second, it hinders local and state officials from protecting students and teachers during an emergency.”

The move from the governor comes even as enrollment declines, an education gap widens, and children are increasingly experiencing problems related to their mental health. N.C. public schools have been intermittently closed for nearly a year. Some districts chose to reopen elementary schools last fall, though other districts have remained fully remote. All middle and high schools have been closed until this month.

Educators have warned that record numbers of students are failing classes this year, and an unusually high percentage have been chronically absent.

Test results, which will be shared at Wednesday’s State Board of Education meeting, show the majority of high school students failed to pass state end-of-course exams given in the fall, the News & Observer reported. 

The risks of keeping children out of the classroom outweighs that of bringing them back, say lawmakers who back the bill. Students, especially those on individual education plans, are now more isolated than ever, they say.

But Cooper and Democrats decided to side with far left groups such as the N.C. Association of Educators, as opposed to parents and residents who want children back in school.

Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, a sponsor of S.B. 37, co-chairs the Senate Education Committee. Ballard has been a leading voice in the Republicans’ effort to reopen schools.

“With teacher vaccinations in full swing, there is no legitimate excuse for Governor Cooper and the far-left NCAE to oppose the broad reopening flexibility this bill grants to school districts,” Ballard has said.

The state teachers’ group is the state affiliate of the National Education Association teachers union.

“The far-left NCAE owns the Governor’s Mansion,” Ballard added. 

Sen Dan Blue, D-Wake, in echoing Cooper, said Monday night he agreed that students need to return to in-person learning, but it must be done “safely and responsibly.” He praised Cooper and health secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen for their leadership during the pandemic, going as far as using the “dimmer switch” analogy.

Dr. Terry Stoops, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation, weighed in after the vote.

“Senate Democrats had a choice between politics and parents. On Monday night, they chose politics. And parents will never forget it.

“Senate Democrats loyalty to Governor Cooper and the N.C. Association of Educators outweighed their commitment to the idea that families should have in-person instructional options. Politics trumping principle is nothing new, but it’s still jarring to see it executed with such bravado,” Stoops said. 

“For parents and children, the veto override vote was equal parts tragedy and treachery.

 “North Carolinians deserve better than politicians that change their mind about critical legislation at the stroke of the governor’s pen. Cooper says that he is committed to in-person learning, but his veto spoke louder than words.

 “It is no coincidence that school choice is more popular than ever. Whenever politicians blindly follow the lead of self-seeking teacher unions and public school advocacy groups, parents seek alternatives that prioritize the needs of their children,” he said.

 “On Monday night, Senate Democrats had an opportunity to improve the wellbeing of North Carolina children.  Instead, they pledged unwavering allegiance to the N.C. Democratic Party and the special interest groups that support it,” said Stoops.

Cooper’s first veto of 2021 extends his state record to 54. Since the N.C. governor gained veto power in 1997, no other chief executive in the state has vetoed more than 20 bills.

While lawmakers voted to override 23 of 28 Cooper vetoes during the governor’s first two years in office in 2017-18, all 25 vetoes he issued in 2019-20 withstood legislative challenge. The difference? Republicans held legislative supermajorities in 2017-18. They lost supermajorities in the 2018 election. They have needed Democratic support since 2019 to overcome the governor’s objections.

CJ staff contributed to this story.