• 52°

Gary Pearce: School reopening debate strains old ties

By Gary Pearce

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.

I was surprised recently when three Democrats, in separate conversations, complained about the “teachers’ union” resisting reopening schools. The N.C. Association of Educators isn’t a union; that’s prohibited by state law. And “teachers’ union” is a term you usually hear from Republicans – never as a term of endearment.

The NCAE supported Gov. Roy Cooper and Democratic legislative candidates in 2016, 2018 and 2020. Teachers marched on Raleigh to protest what they considered meager pay raises from the Republican General Assembly.

When Governor Cooper declared on Feb. 2, “It’s time to get our children back into the classroom,” an NCAE leader said teachers were “very disappointed, surprised.” The NCAE said teachers should get vaccinated before schools reopen.

The governor made clear he wouldn’t mandate a return to classrooms for all students. He said the decision should be left to local school boards and school district administrators. He signed a bill providing $1.6 billion for schools to reopen safely. He moved educators and school staffers up in the priority line for vaccinations.

The real crunch comes this week. Republicans in the General Assembly pushed through a bill requiring school districts to offer in-person instruction. Cooper opposed it; if he vetoes it, will Democrats sustain the veto?

Cooper and Democratic legislators are feeling pressure from parents – parents who worry that their children are falling behind academically, parents who worry about emotional and psychological impacts on kids, and parents who are tired of children being home all the time.

When the pandemic closed schools a year ago, public school advocates hoped parents would come to appreciate teachers more than ever and realize how underpaid they are. Instead, this year may have opened a gulf of resentment between parents and teachers.

Democrats like Governor Cooper are in the middle. And Republicans are happy to use school reopening as a wedge issue to turn both teachers and parents against Democrats.

I’ve seen Democrats and teachers fall out before. In 1982, with a national recession raging and state tax revenues dropping, Gov. Jim Hunt froze teacher salaries. The NCAE, which had endorsed Hunt in 1976 and 1980, felt betrayed. Teachers marched on the Executive Mansion. The NCAE refused to endorse Hunt against Sen. Jesse Helms in 1984.

But Hunt lives on a farm. He knows how to mend fences.

After he left office in 1985, he led the development of a national board-certification system for teachers. He chaired the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards for 10 years. It’s still going strong. More than 126,000 teachers nationally are board-certified; nearly 23,000 are in North Carolina, more than any other state.

Hunt worked closely with teachers through those years. He came to have a new appreciation for them; and they, for him. In the 1990s, during his third and fourth terms, Hunt pushed teachers’ pay to the national average – and into the top 20 among the states. Students’ performance improved significantly, too.

Teachers in North Carolina today feel underpaid, under appreciated and overwhelmed. The pandemic exacerbates their stress. They hear promises from Raleigh about COVID-19 safety precautions, but they fear the promises won’t be kept in their districts and their classrooms.

Teachers want to be in school with their students, but they want to be safe and they want their students to be safe. Yes, reopen schools. But do it safely.

Gary Pearce was a reporter and editor at The News & Observer, a political consultant, and an adviser to Governor Jim Hunt (1976-1984 and 1992-2000). He blogs about politics and public policy at www.NewDayforNC.com.

Comments

Coronavirus

Three deaths, 29 new COVID-19 positives reported

Crime

Blotter: Bullet holes found in woman’s Park Avenue apartment

Crime

Man faces assault charges for domestic incident

High School

Photo gallery: Carson girls win West Regional, headed to state championship

High School

High school basketball: Carson girls headed to state championship game

Local

Commissioners set date for public hearing on potential solar energy system rule changes

Health

Two of Rep. Sasser’s bills successfully pass through Health Committee

Local

Rep. Warren’s measure to allow removal of public notices from newspapers put on back burner

China Grove

China Grove Town Council weighs future of previously rejected housing development

Local

Salisbury City Council hears public comments, receives presentation on Main Street reconfiguration

Crime

Blotter: Man charged with felony drug offenses

Nation/World

California crash kills 13 of 25 people crammed into SUV

Nation/World

Biden vows enough vaccines by end of May

Coronavirus

State to vaccinate medically vulnerable starting March 24

Coronavirus

One new death, 20 new COVID-19 positives reported in Rowan

Kannapolis

Kannapolis man dies in moped crash

Crime

Salisbury Police chief addresses K-9 video, says officer separated from animal

Local

Rowan Rescue Squad sets record straight on fundraising typo

Local

City approves DOT agreement, Salisbury Station project could begin next year

Local

County plans to use vulture effigy, enforce violations to remedy animal carcass feeding problem

Education

Two weeks after ending enhanced protocols, Catawba has no COVID-19 cases

News

Council to hear revised version of Downtown Main Street Plan

Local

Veto override of NC school reopening bill fails in Senate

News

Political Notebook: Majority of likely voters, local legislators support school reopening bill