One Governor Is Standing in the Way of Opening Schools

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

And with that explanation, North Carolina state senator Paul Lowe cast the deciding vote to sustain Governor Roy Cooper’s veto of a bipartisan bill offering in-person learning for kids. Seldom does a politician so openly declare a preference for party over parents, but honesty is a nice change of pace for elected Democrats in the Tar Heel State.

Bless their hearts.

On February 1, Republican state senators Deanna Ballard, Michael Lee, and Ralph Hise filed Senate Bill 37: In-Person Learning Choice for Families. The bill sponsors recognized that a scientific consensus had emerged on reopening schools, one that supported “decisive action” through a bill that expedited students’ return to the classroom. “For months, we’ve heard from families and students who are clamoring to return to in-person learning,” Ballard and Lee said. “The science and data show that we can reopen schools safely.”

The legislation presented to the General Assembly was even-handed, balancing school districts’ needs with demand for in-person instruction among students and parents. It mandated that special-needs students have access to full-time, in-person instruction. It gave school boards the ability to offer a range of in-person options to all other students. It expected that schools would enforce measures to mitigate COVID transmission, and empowered school boards to suspend in-person learning if infections caused staffing levels to plummet or infection rates to surge.

This measured approach led to quick passage in the state senate and house with bipartisan supermajorities. Republican support was unanimous in both chambers. The bill picked up three Democratic votes in the Senate (including eventual veto-override turncoat Senator Paul Lowe) and eight Democratic votes in the House. It quickly landed on the governor’s desk.

In a statement released the day of the final conference committee vote, Governor Cooper suggested he was unwilling to sign it. “Children should be back in the classroom safely, and I can sign this legislation if it adheres to DHHS health safety guidance for schools and protects the ability of state and local leaders to respond to emergencies,” Cooper complained. “This bill currently falls short on both of these fronts.” While kids and parents suffered, the governor stalled. Nine days later, in a textbook Friday afternoon news dump last week, he vetoed the legislation at 4:54 p.m.

Why did Cooper veto a bill supported by fellow Democrats? Many suspect he was placating the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), a teachers’-union affiliate and longtime ally of Cooper and the North Carolina Democratic Party. The Cooper administration and the NCAE were at odds over the state’s pandemic response leading up to the 2020 election. Outspoken NCAE members demanded Cooper use his executive powers to close all public schools indefinitely. But Cooper understood that such a dictatorial declaration would not sit well with an electorate struggling to balance the demands of work with mandated remote learning. His election opponent, Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, had promised voters to open schools immediately. Cooper struck a middle ground, acknowledging public school teachers’ concerns while carving out additional opportunities for districts to expand in-person instruction. Caution and optimism became a recurring theme of his televised briefings, and it appealed to a weary electorate. Cooper’s balancing act won him a narrow reelection, with just over 51.5 percent of the vote.

But after the election, we learned that it was just that: an act. Cooper acquiesced to NCAE demands on issues such as prioritizing teacher vaccinations, placing them above cancer patients in the priority list. And in February, Cooper proposed using state dollars to award $2,500 bonuses for teachers and principals and $1,500 bonuses for school staff for their “courage and commitment to educating our children.” All of this, inexplicably, for a self-described union in decline: According to the latest membership data available, the group lost a third of its active membership over the last five years. Today, it represents only around one in five North Carolina public-school teachers.

Yet its leaders are unfazed. They admire the Chicago Teachers Union model of rambunctious unionism and wish only to grow their political influence in North Carolina, viewing COVID-19 as a means to that end. In a widely shared campaign document, NCAE leaders wrote that “tapping into re-entry anxiety” would help the group elect endorsed candidates (mostly Democrats) in the 2020 election and strengthen themselves for future political contests.

While Cooper and the NCAE have worked hard to stall Republican efforts to put kids first, it came at a price. Shortly after Cooper’s veto, a flash poll by the John Locke Foundation (where I work) of 600 likely North Carolina voters revealed Cooper at odds with the public: 59 percent supported the reopening bill; 28 percent opposed. Moreover, pluralities opposed Cooper’s veto and would support overriding it. 80 percent of Republicans, 56 percent of Unaffiliateds, and 43 percent of Democrats supported S.B. 37. Nearly three out of four respondents believe the child’s parents or guardians are best suited to decide whether a child should attend in-person or virtual school.

It’s not hard to see why. The results of extended remote learning are beginning to come in from state education officials to the state board of education, and they’re not pretty. Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt, a recently elected Republican who has worked across the aisle to reopen schools, reported­ that 23 percent of North Carolina district school students are at risk for academic failure and haven’t made sufficient progress to be promoted to the next grade. In public charter schools, only 9 percent are at risk.

Truitt’s staff also presented data on the fall administration of NC Math 1, NC Math 3, English II, and biology end-of-course tests taken mostly by high school students, and the Beginning-of-Grade 3 Reading Test that establishes a baseline for subsequent reading assessments. State officials rightly warned that these test scores will not show the complete picture, which will be provided later this year. Yet they remain a likely hint of coming disappointments. Compared with test scores from the fall semester of 2019–20, students performed significantly worse on most end-of-course tests administered this school year. The percentage of high school students who failed to reach proficiency in NC Math 1 increased from 48.2 percent last year to 66.4 percent this year. Additionally, a significantly higher percentage of students were not proficient in Biology and NC Math 3 this year. English II proficiency remained similar from last school year to the current one.

The Beginning-of-Grade 3 Reading Test offered equally worrisome results. For example, the percentage of students scoring at the lowest of five achievement levels increased from 49.8 percent to 58.2 percent. This year, only around one in four students earned a score that placed them at grade level. As with the English II results, students’ overall performance on the Beginning-of-Grade 3 Reading Test was similar to the previous year’s. At a minimum, these results suggest that students will need extensive remediation in math and science.

Shortly after media began previewing the test-score reports, public-school advocates insisted that sizable declines in student proficiency are no big deal because standardized tests are inherently flawed. In the capital city of Raleigh, for example, Wake County Board of Education member Jim Martin, a chemistry professor at N.C. State University, proclaimed that “the end-of-course exams are rarely a good measure, or even a valid measure, of learning.” Martin blamed the low scores on teachers’ decision to relax test preparation. Martin offered no evidence to support his hypotheses. Politics and science do not share the same evidentiary standard.

But politics and science are often full of surprises. Less than 48 hours after state senate Democrats thwarted an attempt to override Cooper’s veto of S.B. 37, they sent a letter to the N.C. State Board of Education asking members to approve a plan to “offer all our children, including exceptional children, in-person instruction.”

“We recognize that almost 90 percent of school districts offer or plan to offer in-person learning in the next few weeks,” they wrote. “However, we urge the Board of Education to ensure an option is available in all school districts.”

It was a telling concession to the public’s will. Both parties recognize North Carolinians no longer support keeping children out of the classroom. Now Democrats want to save face. Their problem with S.B. 37 is that its primary sponsors were Republicans. So now they’re trying to work through the State Board of Education to achieve the same things the bill does. Some may call it smart strategy and a ‘win’ for Cooper, the NCAE, and North Carolina Democrats. But while they’ve played politics, the children have suffered in ways we don’t yet fully understand.

I call that a loss for us all.

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