Lawmakers complicate class size “fix” with partisan power grabs

Lawmakers complicate class size “fix” with partisan power grabs

- in Progressive Voices, Top Story

As the General Assembly wraps up its weirdly timed and generally ill-conceived winter session, it would be nice to think that the grand dispute over class sizes in North Carolina’s public schools had been resolved in a way that met valid objections to legislators’ smaller-classes mandate.

Alas, no such luck. Those objections may have been papered over, but the key issue – who pays for the smaller classes – remains. And legislators don’t seem inclined to bend on their insistence that local governments, not the state, foot the bill.

As if school districts and the counties that fund schools’ capital expenses had money to burn. And as if the legislature hadn’t recently enacted whopping tax cuts that make it harder for the state to invest in schools.

There’s of course little disagreement with the notion that trimming the number of students per classroom – in other words, avoiding the kind of overcrowding that keeps teachers from giving each student the attention he or she may need – is a worthy goal. That may be especially the case in the early grades, and K-3 classrooms are the ones that leaders of the Republican-controlled legislature have targeted for size reductions.

But those leaders sort of accidentally-on-purpose forgot to pay for the reductions they wanted to have in place later this year.

A mighty chorus of complaints arose from local officials contemplating the cost of adding teachers and classrooms to bring down class-size averages. Many said they’d have no choice but to lay off teachers in areas such as art, music and phys ed, among other painful economy measures, to come up with the necessary funds.

Those complaints got the attention of legislators who often have seemed hard of hearing. Along came House Bill 90, which received final passage on Feb. 13.

The bill phases in the class downsizing over four years and also provides some extra money to keep so-called enhancement teachers in the arts and P.E. on the job. At least the smaller-class mandate won’t land on hard-pressed school districts and local taxpayers like a ton of bricks in a matter of months.

But at the General Assembly these days, nothing is simple — at least, not when the folks in charge see a chance to score some points against Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and also to outflank a Cooper-friendly ruling from the state Supreme Court.

That’s why H.B. 90, which could have been a fairly straightforward class-size compromise, morphed into one of those dog’s-breakfast combos that in recent years have become a legislative specialty. Principles of orderly legislating again went out the window as unrelated measures were cobbled together in secret and presented in take-it-or-leave-it fashion.

When all was said and done, most Democrats figured they had no choice but to swallow their disgruntlement and vote yes. It’s easy to imagine the legislature’s Republican chiefs enjoying how Cooper must have felt the same squeeze. He says he’ll let the bill become law without his signature (given GOP majorities in the House and Senate, a veto would be futile).

Down the pipe

The bill’s section dealing with the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline (weren’t we talking about class sizes?) must especially have the governor gritting his teeth. He hadn’t won friends among environmentalists, or perhaps even among his former Nash County neighbors, with his support of the project that will bring natural gas from West Virginia fracking zones to eastern North Carolina power plants and perhaps help fuel the region’s struggling economy.

But legislators mainly seemed upset by the deal he negotiated with the pipeline’s energy company sponsors, who agreed to provide $58 million to help “mitigate” the project’s impacts, environmental and otherwise. Critics have called it a slush fund and ripped the deal’s timing, since it appeared to sync up with the Cooper administration’s issuance of a key permit – although Cooper denies there was any quid pro quo.

There are plenty of reasons to oppose construction of the pipeline, and the N.C. Council of Churches’ opposition to such projects is on the record. But with the governor agreeing that the pipeline should be built, better to have a mitigation fund than not.

Legislators, though, would use H.B. 90 to show Cooper who’s boss when it comes to deciding where money should be spent. Don’t think we’re spending enough on schools? OK, we’ll give that $58 million to school districts in the pipeline corridor. Perhaps. Because project sponsors can back away from the deal if the money won’t be used as they and the governor intended.

Election rules

Another raw nerve plucked by H.B. 90 involves an ongoing power struggle over the state’s administration of elections.

By law, the practice in recent decades has been to grant majority control of the State Board of Elections and then to individual county boards to members who belong to the party of the incumbent governor.

Republican legislators didn’t have a problem with that so long as their party, in the person of Pat McCrory, occupied the governor’s office. But after Cooper defeated McCrory in November of 2016, suddenly the established practice represented an assault on the ideals of democracy.

Legislators had another idea, enacted last April over Cooper’s veto. First, they’d combine the state elections board with the Board of Ethics. Then they’d change the new board’s make-up so that membership was evenly divided between the two major parties.

In practice, that would mean Democratic members aligned with Cooper couldn’t make decisions without support from at least one Republican. And the governor couldn’t dismiss board members because he didn’t like their priorities – only for misbehavior.

The state Supreme Court, considering Cooper’s challenge to this scheme, agreed along partisan lines that he would be impermissibly hindered in carrying out his duty to ensure that the laws are faithfully executed.

That’s because he’d have no practical way of influencing the board to enforce election laws in keeping with his understanding of how they should be enforced – in Cooper’s case, let it be said, an understanding rooted in the laudable belief that our civic health hinges on free and fair access to the polls.

The court (whose 4-3 Democratic majority is another sore point among GOP legislators) in its Jan. 26 ruling declared the revamped elections/ethics board to represent a violation of the constitutionally mandated separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches. It kicked the case back to a lower court to decide next steps. But legislators decided they’d rather not wait for that court’s marching orders.

Instead, they used H.B. 90 to try to wriggle off the hook. The board will be expanded to nine members, with the new person unaffiliated with either of the major parties. And the governor will be able to dismiss members at will.

County concerns

This move toward “bipartisanship” on the board actually amounts to a Republican effort to undercut the powers of a Democratic governor – when Republican legislators were perfectly happy to let Gov. McCrory remain atop the elections board chain of command, as it were. Yet on its face, it’s not a bad compromise.

What remains unaddressed by the bill now stinking and shining on Cooper’s desk is that county elections boards will continue to be vulnerable to partisan deadlock. Those boards are responsible for decisions governing such sensitive matters as polling place locations, hours and early voting sites – in other words, on who is encouraged to vote without undue hassle. Their decisions can help shape the electorate and thus affect election results.

County elections boards have consisted of three members, with two of them belonging to the incumbent governor’s party. The law reviewed by the Supreme Court expands that membership to four, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Notably, Republicans would serve as chairs during even-numbered years, when statewide and legislative elections are held.

In ruling against the revamped state elections board, the Supreme Court declined to take a position on the constitutionality of the county board set-up. Still, the court observed that the new county board arrangement “compounded” the law’s separation-of-powers problems.

It’s clear in any case that hamstringing county election boards in their enforcement of voting rights is not in the public interest – even if Republican chiefs may perceive it to be in their partisan interest.

The Council of Churches hopes the courts will see H.B. 90’s state-level elections board tweak for what it is: a Republican effort to shimmy over the constitutional bar while continuing to invite counties to suppress the votes of people who, for good reason, oppose the conservative Republican agenda.

This legislative session was called amid a swirl of redistricting issues that have put North Carolina in the spotlight as a hotbed of extreme gerrymandering.

Efforts to redraw judicial voting districts so courts would take on a more Republican flavor, and perhaps also to give the legislature a role in the selection of judges, didn’t quite jell. When legislators return in May – if not sooner – we’ll have that unfinished business to anticipate. And likely to oppose.

Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches.