Mark Robinson: The next education governor?

FACTS task force lays the groundwork for what Robinson's legacy could be

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson is not a traditional political figure. But if he becomes the next governor, it will likely be because he can fit into a mold familiar in North Carolina politics: The education governor.

Robinson rose to national prominence in the firearm rights arena after a firey four-minute speech to the Greensboro City Council against their proposed ban on gun shows. “I am the majority,” the man who would become the state’s first black lieutenant governor declared. “I’m here to stand up for the law-abiding citizens of this community.”

Two years later, that same passion and rhetoric was on display on the campaign trail, broadening out to issues of culture, patriotism, jobs, and election security. He built a powerful grassroots system of support along the way.

Now, seven months into his term, Robinson has carved out a new defining issue: education. Or rather, indoctrination in the public school system in the place of education. The lieutenant governor’s office released a report last week detailing hundreds of instances of what Robinson terms inappropriate bias in the classroom.

Again, Robinson is speaking for the majority — this time standing up for the hundreds of thousands of parents who are concerned about what their children are being taught in the public school system.

The initiative comes at a prescient time. For years, North Carolina’s education system has developed an insular self-righteousness and contempt for parents behind the solid brick walls of the schoolhouse. COVID-19 put cracks in the mortar. With children at home for more than a year, parents for the first time got a glimpse of what actually happens in public schools — and now they’re leaving in droves.

It all may be enough to propel Robinson into the Executive Mansion in 2024.

FACTS

Soon after beginning his term, Robinson convened a group to investigate complaints that the state’s public schools were pushing partisan ideology in the classroom, particularly when it comes to race, sexuality and gender. This “Fairness and Accountability in the Classroom for Teachers and Students” task force released its first report last week after receiving more than 500 submissions from parents and teachers across the state.

In Orange County, a teacher warned against the school system’s “Gender Support Protocol,” which requires schools to immediately begin treating students as the opposite sex if they request, without notifying their parents. The Governor’s School program for gifted high school students taught the “Flying Gender Unicorn,” “cisgender privilege,” “male privilege,” “Christian privilege” and “white privilege” over the course of just five weeks.

In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, at least one school has mandatory weekly lessons on white privilege. One teacher was told that saying “y’all” was racist. A Wake County class of high school freshmen were told that “if you were white and Christian, you should be ashamed." At the same school, a junior history class was told that “it is possible that some Republicans could be good people.”

A fifth-grade teacher refers to students as “my comrades” and “my little activists” while wearing Black Lives Matter stickers on her shoes and encouraging them to participate in the LGBTQ “struggle.” Another teacher ranted about U.S. currency only having “white, male slave owners” depicted on its bills. An elementary school’s vocabulary lesson included former President Donald Trump in the definition of “xenophobia.”

To be sure, the FACTS report is purely anecdotal. The complaints come largely from politically aware conservatives, and there was little opportunity to verify their claims.

But it lays the groundwork for what will likely come next: A thorough review of North Carolina’s curriculum and renewed focus on education standards. It also sets the stage for a 2024 campaign for governor that makes education a central issue.

Education governors

Public education has long dominated North Carolina politics. For good reason: K-12 schools currently make up roughly 40% of the state budget. In nearly every cycle, education is one of the top two or three issues of a gubernatorial race.

That’s why governors and those aspiring to the office try to claim the mantle as the education candidate.

Gov. Charles Aycock was the first North Carolina chief executive to earn the label “education governor” after pushing the General Assembly to increase funding for public schools and campaigning against illiteracy. This legacy is now rightly overshadowed by his abhorrent, blatant and violent white supremacy.

Gov. Jim Martin campaigned under the slogan “Better roads, better jobs, better schools.” And Gov. Jim Hunt became a national leader in the education arena during his historic four terms as North Carolina governor. He’s still leaning into the moniker in retirement, convening “education governors” from across the country through the Hunt Institute.

Robinson’s approach is different, but he could claim the title of “education governor” just the same. Rather than argue that students should be educated, or when, or where, or with whom, Robinson focuses on how they should be taught, and what. Where politicians like Gov. Roy Cooper (who is fond of reminding everyone he is the son of a teacher) have worked to ingratiate themselves with the public school bureaucracy, Robinson focuses on the parents.

Robinson’s legacy

There’s a lot that can happen between now and 2024, but this issue isn’t likely to go away in the next few years. An electorate tired of debating teacher pay may be ready to discuss the more fundamental issue of what students are taught.

The Democrat next in line to run for governor is Attorney General Josh Stein, who has little to campaign on beyond being a third term for Gov. Cooper. He’s good at raising money, but has little statewide profile, barely won his re-election bid (by a paltry 14,000 votes) and has no natural path to claiming education as his issue.

With the work of the FACTS task force behind him, Robinson can clearly set the agenda in a campaign on education — and he who sets the agenda wins the race.

Already, both chambers of the General Assembly have passed a bill that would ban indoctrination in public schools. The House and Senate are now working out differences in the two versions before sending it to Gov. Roy Cooper, who will undoubtedly veto it.

Since losing their veto-proof majority in 2018, Republicans have had a difficult time making the case to the public that they’ve been damaged by the bills the legislature has failed to turn into laws. The budget has simply not been a salient issue in political campaigns. The Born Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act and the ICE bill have been effective in rallying the conservative base, but not made a big dent among the independent voters who swing elections in this purple state.

This one could be different. Suburban parents are showing that they are concerned about the state of public schools. The percentage of students in home schools grew 20% last year and private schools gained 3% (the public school population fell 3%).

Robinson could make signing a bill that requires school to focus on education instead of indoctrination into his legacy as the next education governor.

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2 Things of Note

1) General Assembly passes police accountability bill. The bill would create a “duty to intervene,” meaning police officers would need to step in and stop a fellow officer from committing a wrongful action. The legislation would also create a public database of officer infractions and discipline. It’s all the product of the task force convened by Gov. Cooper after the death of George Floyd. Surprisingly, the bill has gotten little attention in North Carolina, but it likely will once Cooper signs it into law.

2) North Carolina needs more ICU bed capacity. The reports have begun trickling in of hospitals filling up with COVID patients, the vast majority of them unvaccinated. It’s not really hard to reach this point: A look at the numbers of hospital beds and ICU capacity per county shows that only a tiny increase in the number of patients can cause issues. Most parts of the state have only a dozen or so ICU beds per county, and even Mecklenburg and Wake counties have only around 300 beds apiece. This is shockingly small, and the main culprit is North Carolina’s Certificate of Need laws. These prevent hospitals from building additional capacity without an expensive and time-consuming process to get approval from the state — which is hard to come by. The General Assembly has been hesitant to take the CON system on, but hopefully this Delta spike will give them the political courage to repeal it entirely.

3) Want to play fantasy football? Longleaf Politics has created an ESPN Fantasy Football league for any of our readers who want to play. The first 12 of you to join will get to participate. Here’s the link. The draft will be this Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Looking forward to it!