The politics of making teachers mad

Posted by Dan Barkin on November 4, 2013 

So here is the great uncertainty. How much does it matter, politically, that the Republicans who run the legislature and many North Carolina teachers aren’t on speaking terms.

I ask this question because the Republicans should be asking it, because their control of the legislature may rest on the answer. Maybe not in the 2014 legislative elections. But maybe, if they lose enough seats next November, then in the following elections, in 2016.

I know this is hard to conceive - what with the Republicans now controlling nearly two thirds of the General Assembly.

What made me think about it were the “walk-ins” today by teachers at various schools around the state. You have some upset teachers who are unhappy about what the Republicans have done since they took control of the legislature. About pay, about tenure, about teacher assistants, class sizes, etc. What the Republicans call reform, the N.C. Association of Educators is fighting with all its might.

This is what the leader of the Senate Republicans had to say about today’s activities. Quoting from our story on newsobserver.com:

Senate leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, charged that the “walk-in” events were a media stunt planned by the N.C. Association of Educators for political purposes. Berger issued a press release Monday morning criticizing the “walk-in” events, while also expressing appreciation for teachers' work and acknowledging their First Amendment rights.

“But we don’t appreciate the bully tactics of an organized union that puts kids’ safety at risk to gin up its membership and inflate the salaries of its executives,” Berger's statement said. “There is a time and place for everything – our schools are not the place for politics and our children should not be the pawns.”

The question for the Republicans is where are the majority of the teachers? Is this just the NCAE acting as an arm of the Democratic opposition? Or are teachers upset on their own, without any need for encouragement from their organization.

Here is one unpleasant scenario for the GOP, if they’ve managed to make enough teachers and other school personnel angry.

As of the past school year, there were around 177,000 full-time public school personnel in North Carolina, according to the state Department of Public Instruction. That broke down to around 95,000 teachers, another 14,700 professionals such as counselors, and 60,300 “others” -- such as teacher assistants, clerical workers and custodians. Throw in another nearly 7,000 administrators.

So let’s say that a lot of those folks are really unhappy with the legislature. And let’s say that many of them go home after a hard day and let someone hear about it - a spouse, a significant other.

So does that mean there are a couple of hundred thousand teachers and people close to teachers who can’t wait until next November to hit the polls and vote for Democrats? So motivated, in fact, that they will also call all their friends to go to the polls? And even in Republican districts where a Democrat can’t possibly win, are teachers and their supporters going to stream to the polls, angry with the GOP? Because even with the Republicans’ best redistricting efforts, teachers live in every single district.

These are some of the questions Republicans should be polling on.

There were a number of fairly close districts in the 2012 legislative elections. I went back and checked the results on the State Board of Elections site. There were maybe a half dozen Senate races won by Republicans with underwhelming majorities, and maybe 20 House races in the same category. But there were also a number of Republicans who were unopposed who may not get a free pass next fall. I offer the caveat that there are many people who make a good living crunching the numbers and estimating which districts may be in play; I am taking a layman’s approach.

Now maybe Sen. Berger’s calculation is that for every upset teacher, there are many more voters who think that the public schools are under-performing and are not getting good results for the billions of dollars they are spending. There are, in fact, many more taxpayers who vote than angry teachers. So, for all I know, the “walk-ins” only serve to solidify the Republican base.

That’s why we hold elections, to settle these arguments over whose vision is shared by the majority of North Carolinians.

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