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Guest Column: 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 the 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 Governor 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 February 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, Governor 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 Senator 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, underappreciated and overwhelmed. The pandemic exacerbates their stress. They hear promises from Raleigh about Covid 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.

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