Richard Weaver’s famous book “Ideas have Consequences” has a pithy and poignant title. The same stance should be applied to what happened on Tuesday; elections have consequences. Changes in leadership, constitutional offices, the state legislature and judicial offices all impact the way policy is implemented or litigated.
While election results have not been finalized, a good part of the elections puzzle in North Carolina is now known. Tuesday’s results will certainly impact policy in North Carolina and especially education policy. Education is one of the largest areas for state budgeting. In 2018-19, North Carolina spent $13.8 billion on education. That includes K-12 public schools, community colleges and the University of North Carolina System. Those funds accounted for 57 percent of the $23.9 billion General Fund budget.
Democrats viewed the 2020 legislative elections as a chance to strengthen their grip on North Carolina. A second term for Gov. Roy Cooper and recapturing a U.S. Senate seat from Republicans would raise the party profile. Victories in Council of State races and judicial offices would help strengthen the party. Democrats were hoping that capturing the governor’s office, and majorities in the state House and Senate would help to end a decade of frustration under Republican rule and put the state on a path toward what they believed people wanted: more progressive policies such as higher teacher pay, added pre-K education programs, and more professional staff and resources for schools. Candidates were recruited and big money poured in for Democrats. As election night wore on, those grandiose prospects dimmed.
By the end of the night the results for state Democrats weren’t good. Although Gov. Cooper was re-elected for a second term over Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, Democrats picked up one seat in the state Senate and lost four seats in the House. Both chambers remain in control of Republicans. In addition, conservative Mark Robinson was elected lieutenant governor and Republican Catherine Truitt defeated Democrat Jen Mangrum for the NC superintendent of public instruction.
In addition, in a stunning development, three Republicans could potentially be elected to the North Carolina Supreme Court – if the current positioning holds. So, how do Democratic disappointments and Republican gains impact education policy in the near future? Let’s look at four major areas.
Status Quo Reigns in Legislature
With the reelection of a Democratic governor and no change in who controls the state House or state Senate, Republicans will continue to control the policymaking process – as they have for the past decade. Not only did Democrats fail to flip either chamber, Republicans actually picked up four seats in the House. These realities coupled with Cooper’s veto pen and the loss –two years ago – of veto proof majorities by Republicans will likely moderate legislative proposals. Cooper’s initiatives for a large teacher pay raise, job training, expanded access to early college and childcare programs and more money for K-12 education to comply with Leandro may have a rocky road. Conversely, Republican efforts to expand school choice, change how teachers are paid, and distribute more authority and responsibility to the local level may also hit headwinds. The only thing we can say with certainty is that election results cement the current political configuration for another two years and place a greater premium on compromise and working effectively with those on the other side of the aisle.
Republican State Superintendent will highlight the need to reform public education
Catherine Truitt’s victory over Jen Mangrum is a welcome win for conservatives committed to bringing real change to education. Truitt’s victory proves the education establishment is not invincible and that people want common sense reform and more educational options for their children. Truitt’s election means the Department of Public Instruction will continue to be led by a reform-minded individual who believes the education system is broken and that merely adding more funding isn’t a solution. Truitt’s outlook is likely to find her friends among Republican legislators who direct policymaking and write education legislation. As the State Superintendent is a constitutional member of the State Board of Education, Truitt’s voice will be welcomed on a body that has seen the influence of conservatives wane in recent years. Truitt will likely emphasize the importance of placing a quality teacher in every classroom, revamping school accountability and testing, and beginning a renewed and much-needed focus on literacy and reading proficiency. Conservatives should also be happy that unlike her opponent and the current governor, Truitt supports school choice. She believes parents should have options to provide their children with a good education. Truitt supports charter schools and home schools and she has reiterated her support for the Opportunity Scholarship Program. This program gives more choices to low-income families.
Judicial gains can impact key cases
Republicans experienced unprecedented success in Tuesday’s vote. They currently lead in 3 of 3 races at the state Supreme Court, all five races in the Court of Appeals and 10 of 12 contested races at the District Court level. If the results of Tuesday’s elections hold up, Republicans would have surprised many prognosticators who predicted a blue wave. In a race to be the chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, Republican and current Justice Paul Newby has a lead of nearly 3,700 votes over Chief Justice Cheri Beasley. In addition, Republicans Phil Berger Jr. and Tamara Barringer also won seats by comfortable margins of 74,000 and 131,000 votes, respectively. These outcomes would flip the composition of the court from the current ratio of six Democrats and one Republican to four Democrats and three Republicans; with a Republican chief justice.
The impact of these changes can’t be overestimated; especially at the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court level. The court has shaped the scope and direction of school funding, state responsibilities regarding the provision of education and the constitutionality of educational options. With the long-running Leandro case the court has helped to define the responsibilities regarding the “right and privilege of education.” At the appellate level, Sugar Creek v. Charlotte Mecklenburg School system court found that local school systems must give charter schools a portion of their operating budget even if the budgets include funds that are designated for special programs that charter schools do not offer. Lastly, in 2015 Hart v. State, the court upheld the constitutionality of the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Recently seven plaintiffs brought a lawsuit that said the Opportunity Scholarship Program discriminates on the basis of religion, religious beliefs, and sexual orientation and should be found in violation of the state constitution. Although no one can say for certain, it is expected the addition of Republicans is likely to make the court more sympathetic towards the development of more practical school funding solutions and educational options such as vouchers and charter schools.
Expect new Lieutenant Governor to highlight conservative ideas
Republican Mark Robinson’s victory over Democratic State Rep. Yvonne Lewis Holley means North Carolina will have its first ever African American lieutenant governor. Besides being first in line should the governor not be able to perform his duties and presiding over the state Senate, the office comes with few duties, but does offer a platform.
Robinson is a newcomer to politics having never held political office. However, he believes his message of conservative values resonated with voters. According to Robinson’s campaign website, Robinson will fight for the life of the unborn, end indoctrination in the schools, defend the Second Amendment and stand up for law enforcement.
Conservatives expect Robinson will work to end politicization of the school curriculum and improve parental rights in schools. Robinson believes parents should decide how and where their children are educated. He is a strong advocate for school choice and believes that the state should continue to strengthen the Opportunity Scholarship Program which provides vouchers to low-income students to attend a private school.
As lieutenant governor, Robinson will join two other Republicans – new State Superintendent Catherine Truitt and State Treasurer Dale Folwell, who was re-elected for a second term – as members of the State Board of Education. Conservatives should be grateful knowing these three are representing them on the board. Their experience and commitment to conservative values will help guide the board and ensure North Carolina public schools are working for students and taxpayers.
Predictions about flipping the state Legislature, reasserting Democratic dominance of state government, and ushering in new progressive policy proposals have proven premature. On Tuesday North Carolinians said they do not want to radically change state government but made some changes in key constitutional offices and the courts which left Democrats disappointed and Republicans more than satisfied with the outcomes. If anything, Tuesday’s results were a repudiation of the progressive narratives Democrats and pundits were feeding voters over the past several months.
For all the talk about change, the dynamics between the legislature and the governor will remain much the same for education and most other policy areas; policy will be developed by majority Republicans in the House and Senate and need the signature of a Democratic governor. Those realities will limit the scope of proposals, which isn’t always a bad thing. Significant wins in two constitutional offices and throughout the courts can work to preserve key education reforms and keep school choice an important policy issue. Overall, not a bad prospect for proponents of real education reform.