by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
Is the NC Association of Educators (NCAE) done playing nice with Gov. Cooper? I have been thinking about that question ever since Bob Luebke of the Civitas Institute asked it last week. At his July 1 press conference, Cooper explained that he delayed his school reopening announcement to get “as much buy-in as we possibly can” before committing to one of three reopening plans. For the Cooper administration, NCAE buy-in is the only buy-in that matters. And it appears that Cooper and his advisors spent the last two weeks securing the support of our state’s teacher union leaders before he announces his school reopening plan today.
The NCAE has been one of Cooper’s most consistent supporters, and public disagreements between the two are rare. But the NCAE appears to be divided on the issue of school reopening. Many rank-and-file members want Gov. Cooper to keep school buildings closed and order public schools to conduct full-time remote learning in the fall. Educators fear that any form of in-person learning will subject school employees, particularly those who are older or immunocompromised, to unnecessary risks. They reason that, while full-time remote learning is not ideal for some, it is the only plan that guarantees the safety of over 185,000 adults and approximately 1.5 million children in public schools. The argument for full-time remote learning is both rational and compassionate, but it features serious drawbacks. These shortcomings include the difficulty of accommodating parents who do not have the flexibility to work from home, properly educating special needs children, and reaching rural communities that have limited access to internet technologies.
Yet, Gov. Cooper has insisted repeatedly that school reopening must include some form of in-person instruction. His political advisors do not want him to alienate families that would be harmed by full-time remote learning, so he is expected to choose the middle-road approach today, the so-called Plan B. Plan B includes strict social distancing policies, extensive sanitation requirements, and allowances for remote learning. To be sure, such a plan does not allay educator concerns about possible exposure to COVID-19. But given a choice between protecting Cooper’s electoral prospects and risking exposure to the virus, plenty of gung-ho members of the NCAE will choose the former.
On Monday, the union released an NC Public School Bill of Rights that takes aim at “privatizers and their supporters in our legislature.” NCAE leaders claim that lawmakers “have been starving our schools to death” and “prioritizing corporate tax breaks over funding our futures.” NCAE asked supporters of the statement to sign a petition that states, “I agree that the NC General Assembly [must] take these steps to support safe conditions for our children, families, and school staff.” Notably, Gov. Cooper isn’t mentioned once.
The strategy is simple, albeit risky. If Cooper’s decision produces unfortunate consequences, such as schoolwide outbreaks or even deaths, public school advocacy groups like the NCAE will try to blame the Republican majority of the General Assembly for failing to provide adequate resources for coronavirus mitigation measures. If Cooper’s decision is reasonably successful, then they will praise the Cooper administration for its prudence and leadership. Either the way, the goal is the same – to help elect or reelect their slate of endorsed Democrats in November.
The NCAE lays out three demands for the General Assembly. First, NCAE leaders call on lawmakers to “maintain at least 2019-20 levels of funding and staffing for the 2020-21 school year.” An NC Policy Watch op-ed also published on Monday afternoon makes a case for duct-taping a school finance system long in need of replacement. In fact, the author’s description of our state’s convoluted funding system unwittingly and amusingly makes a case for its reform.
Second, they call on lawmakers to “Fully fund the requirements for reopening of schools determined by the State Department of Health and Human Services as specified in the Strong Schools Public Health Toolkit.” The StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit (K-12) does not outline the costs associated with implementing one or more of the plans, although I’m confident that the Cooper administration will concoct a starting bid. NC DHHS officials can change (and have changed) reopening requirements at will, so any initial estimates would undoubtedly rise once the school year begins. And even if lawmakers deliver every dollar demanded by Cooper and the NCAE, both will still try to lay blame at the feet of “privatizers and their supporters in our legislature,” regardless of their actual culpability.
Finally, NCAE leaders demand, “Direct appropriate decision-making bodies to meet with public school employees, convened by the North Carolina Association of Educators, for the purpose of co-creating conditions of re-entry that respect the concerns of our students, families, and staff (i.e. safety, healthcare, teaching and learning, racial and economic justice, etc.).” Of course lawmakers should meet with public school employees to discuss reopening, but there is no reason why they need to rely on a group that is openly hostile to them to do so.
The NCAE could have fought to protect the health and safety of all educators by championing a full-time remote learning plan seemingly preferred by a sizable share of North Carolina educators. Instead, the union chose to play pandemic politics.
4:00 pm update: NCAE responds favorably to Gov. Cooper’s choice of Plan B. Union officials double down: “In order to safely re-open all schools in a way that will protect the health of both students and educators, a significant amount of resources is required. The General Assembly has simply refused to appropriate them. This General Assembly must step up and do their jobs to provide the necessary funding for public schools so that we as educators can do our jobs to safely educate all of North Carolina’s students.”