Opinion: Carolina Journal Opinions

Defeating NCAE, parents and Republicans on the cusp of reopening schools.

Gov. Roy Cooper (Pool photo)
Gov. Roy Cooper (Pool photo)

Fresh off a solid re-election campaign centered around his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and just weeks into the first legislative session of his second term, Gov. Roy Cooper is on the brink of a major political defeat that could have wide-ranging ramifications for his remaining term as North Carolina’s chief executive.

A Republican-sponsored bill that would mandate North Carolina’s public K-12 schools offer in-person instruction has passed both chambers of the General Assembly with enough Democrat votes to enact the legislation over the governor’s objections.

While the governor appeared almost certain to veto the bill, the measure passed with so many Democrat votes, he may allow the bill to become law without his signature to avoid the embarrassment of a veto override. Either scenario is a major loss for Cooper.

The bill guarantees K-12 students the option of returning to the classroom, at least part-time. Students with special needs could choose full-time in-person learning, and it grants school districts wide flexibility in determining how best to operate in-person instruction while requiring they adhere to Department of Health and Human Services safety protocols.

The House gave final approval to the bill 77-42, with five more votes than are needed to override a veto. The Democrats voting with Republicans forcing schools to re-open include: Cecil Brockman of Guilford, Charles Graham of Robeson County, Joe John of Wake County, Greg Meyer of Orange County, Billy Richardson of Cumberland County, Michael Wray of Halifax, Terry Garrison of Granville, and Shelly  Willingham of Edgecombe. They represent a wide spectrum of House Democrats, white and black, conservative and liberal, urban and rural. It appears angry and frustrated parents have no political or geographic boundaries.

Senate Bill 37 passed the Senate, 31-17. Three Democrats joined Republicans in voting for the bill, which would be enough to override a veto from Cooper in theSenate if no members changed their vote. If all 50 state senators are present and voting, 30 are needed to vote to override the governor’s veto.

Democrat Sens. Ben Clark and Kirk Deviere, both of Cumberland County, joined Senator Paul Lowe of Forsyth in voting for the bill with all the Republican senators.

The state teachers union vehemently opposes the bill, saying all teachers should be vaccinated before schools fully open, a position the head of the Centers for Disease Control says is not necessary to safely re-open schools.

“My hope is that the governor will sign this bill,” said House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, at a news conference. “The governor held a press conference where he said he wanted children back in school, and so this bill does that. This bill, in a safe way, would put children back in school, back for in-classroom instruction where appropriate and with the appropriate social distancing guidelines.”

Former Jim Hunt adviser Gary Pearce wrote this week about the friction between Democrats, parents, and the N.C. Association of Educators.

One of North Carolina’s most enduring political alliances — teachers and the Democratic Party — is being tested by today’s debate over reopening schools.

“The ties, which go back decades, have been strained before, and survived. But this may be the toughest test,” wrote Pearce.

Prominent Democrat consultant Thomas Mills is also pushing Democrats to get kids back in the classroom.

“We should be reopening schools, and our reaction and response to the coronavirus has been driven more by hysteria than reality,” writes Mills. “The damage we are doing to our children is unknown, but it’s certainly more harmful to them than the disease itself. The risk to the teachers and school personnel is minimal with the right precautions.”

With legislative super-majorities during Cooper’s first two years in office, Republicans overrode 23 of Cooper’s 28 vetoes. Since losing their super-majorities in 2018, Republicans failed to override any of Cooper’s 25 vetoes during the final two years of his first term.

Republicans last overrode a Cooper veto in August 2018, on a bill dealing with judicial elections.

Overriding Cooper and defeating him on the central political and policy issue facing the state could serve to further shift the balance of power in Raleigh going forward. Unless he chooses to run for the U.S. Senate at age 69 in 2026, Cooper has likely seen his last election. With each passing day he assumes more of a lame-duck status.

Republican legislative leaders have some powerful carrots to entice Democrats across the aisle to provide key votes in the future. Because Cooper refused to sign a comprehensive budget over the past two years, Republicans start budget negotiations with ample cash reserves to offer some Democratic lawmakers funding for pet projects back home in exchange for supporting their budget. That budget will likely contain attractive teacher and state worker pay increases.

Republicans are also set later to begin drawing new legislative districts this year, and they can make life easier for some Democrats willing to play ball with them on other bills.

Cooper and the teachers union lost badly last year when the governor, egged on by NCAE, vetoed the state budget and refused to accept a nearly 5% raise for teachers, hoping to shame the Republicans into doing more. Then the pandemic hit, and teachers went without a significant raise.

Now it appears Cooper and the NCAE may lose again, and this loss could wound Cooper even more going forward.