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North Carolina teachers' group trying to remain relevant under Republican rule in Raleigh


RALEIGH, North Carolina — The North Carolina Association of Educators was among the state's most influential policy and political advocacy groups when Democrats pulled the levers of power in state government.

Today, the state's largest teacher membership organization is trying to revive its relevance in Raleigh with Republicans in charge.

The group's statewide clout has been eroding since the 2010 elections, when the GOP took control of both General Assembly chambers. Republican Pat McCrory was elected governor two years later despite NCAE's endorsement of Democrat Walter Dalton.

During that time, Republicans have pressed successfully for an alternate path for public education they say will improve student and teacher performance but one NCAE leaders argue angrily keeps teacher pay and per-pupil spending too low. With a few exceptions, NCAE generally continues to back Democratic legislative candidates, which in turn makes many Republicans less willing to work with the group.

NCAE officials "don't give us the credit that we deserve on how we do advocate for education," said Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, the powerful Senate Rules Committee chairman, in explaining the GOP hostility. "We're open to reasonable conversation about what works or what doesn't but it ... seems like we just have attacks and snarly comments in the paper."

But NCAE can't support how Republicans have eliminated job-protection rules, or tenure, for future veteran teachers, promoted differentiated pay raises and created taxpayer-funded scholarships for children in low-income families to attend private K-12 schools.

NCAE President Rodney Ellis disagrees his group has lost its ability to sway, citing increases in textbook funding and preserving money for thousands of teacher assistant positions that had been on the budget's chopping block. Ellis said legislative leaders haven't been interested in sitting down to work through differences.

"We are still in a major battle to protect public education from harmful decision-making from our legislature and the fight continues," Ellis said. "We haven't lost yet."

The NCAE is the state affiliate of the National Education Association, which bills itself as the largest labor union in America. NCAE, however, doesn't have collective bargaining powers with the state. NCAE spokesman Tim Crowley declined to provide membership trends in the past five years, saying the group didn't release membership information. The NCAE website, however, lists its total membership as 70,000.

The relationship between NCAE and the legislature went south when the House voted in early 2012 to override Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue's veto of a bill to end payroll deductions for NCAE members to pay dues from their state checks. Then-House Speaker Thom Tillis said the legislation was payback for NCAE attacking Democratic supporters of the 2011 Republican budget. NCAE sued the state, and a judge struck down the law.

A reminder of the continued strain occurred this month during a General Assembly oversight committee. Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school district leaders were peppered with questions about why Ellis had been permitted to remain on "educational leave" for several years while holding NCAE positions. A contractual arrangement had allowed him to keep accruing years of service to help his retirement.

Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, an education budget-writer, was one of but a few Republicans recommended by NCAE in 2014. Horn said he meets with the NCAE lobbyist because he's always got something to learn. But he said the perception that the group is promoting a specific political philosophy is hurting it.

The group's influence, Horn said, has "fallen dramatically as really as a consequence to their political activity."

Brian Lewis, a former NCAE lobbyist during times of both Democratic and Republican majorities, said his ex-employer should consider supporting more moderate GOP members with education views it can better accept, rather than spend funds to defeat them.

Now a contract lobbyist, Lewis said he tells current clients historically aligned with Democrats to lower their policy expectations.

"Success looks different than it did five years ago," he said.

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