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Perspective | Teachers as a fulcrum in the politics of states

In North Carolina, candidate filing for state offices in the 2020 elections opens on the Monday after Thanksgiving. In reality, of course, campaigning has long been underway, intermingled with governing, as illuminated by the standoff between Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican legislators over teacher pay.

North Carolina isn’t Kentucky, or Louisiana, or Virginia; each state has its own quirks and cultures. Still, the 2019 elections in these three Southern states may offer cues to how education issues could influence the dynamics of 2020.

Democrats won elections for governor in both Kentucky and Louisiana. In Virginia, which has a Democratic governor, Democrats won control of both chambers in the legislature for the first time in more than two decades. It’s too much to say that recent elections in the South turned only on education; rather, education fit into the package of factors that led to Democratic victories, which relied heavily on a strong turnout in major cities and on gains against Republicans in suburbs.

In Kentucky, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run as a ticket. For his running mate, Democrat Andy Beshear picked Jacqueline Coleman, a former teacher and assistant high school principal, who will give birth to her first child soon after taking office.

Beshear ousted incumbent Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, who became a bête noire of Kentucky teachers. Bevin tried to alter their pensions, teachers staged a walk-out, and the governor called them “thuggish.” On election night, Beshear declared, “To our educators, this is your victory.” 

In Louisiana, incumbent Democrat John Bel Edwards won a second term by defeating wealthy Republican businessman Eddie Rispone, who defined his candidacy as an ally of President Trump. Edwards is the son and brother of sheriffs and the husband of a teacher. He stands well to the right of national Democrats on abortion and guns. Still, he expanded Medicaid coverage and advocates a higher minimum wage.

When he became governor four years ago, Edwards was confronted with a severe budget deficit. He called seven special sessions of the Republican-majority legislature, and coaxed out a modest increase in the sales tax. As he campaigned, he boasted of closing the deficit and giving teachers their first raise in 10 years. On election night, Edwards defined early childhood education “as my number one priority for the second term.”

In an analysis of the Kentucky and Louisiana gubernatorial elections, veteran political correspondent Tom Baxter wrote, “These elections reaffirmed two bedrock principles about politicking in the South. It’s good if the sheriffs are on your side, and if the teachers aren’t on your side, it’s very, very bad.” 

Still, the 2019 elections hardly suggest an all-out Democratic comeback in the South. While Edwards and Beshear prevailed with slim majorities, Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves won the Mississippi governor’s race. While Democrats gained control of the Virginia General Assembly, Republicans held onto power in the Kentucky and Louisiana legislatures.

The North Carolina teacher-pay standoff reflects the wider struggle between the two major political parties over power and governance in the states and nation. In the period of Republican legislative majorities since 2011 in North Carolina, public-school teachers have played a prominent role in the pushback to the GOP agenda. Red-clad teachers have marched in Raleigh to call not only for higher pay but also more robust funding of schools. Educator organizations have supported Cooper’s veto of a Republican-enacted teacher pay raise that he described as “paltry.”

The General Assembly is not expected to return for budget legislation until early January — that is, until after the candidate filing period ends on the Friday before Christmas. How the teacher-pay issue plays out, as well as the forthcoming report in the court case on a sound, basic education, will surely sharpen the great debate over the future of North Carolina’s schools through the 2020 election year.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.