Rep. Ed Hanes is used to controversy by now.
The Winston-Salem Democrat, an outspoken education reformer, has a reputation for cross-party alliances. Now in his second term in Raleigh, Hanes has been a relentless critic of what he describes as the legislature’s failure to take substantial action to ensure educational equity for the state’s poor children.
And, this week, he co-sponsored draft legislation with a handful of other Democrats to turn over nearly $39 million of lottery cash to a newly-established state program for paying back teachers’ student loans.
Yet, three years ago, he rankled many public education advocates and Democrats when he sided with Republicans on a controversial law funneling public funds into private school vouchers.
Last month, he joined the GOP again when he voted in committee to advance a bill legalizing achievement school districts, a controversial reform method that wrests control of chronically struggling schools from local districts and turns over operations—including hiring and firing powers—to for-profit charter operators.
On Thursday night, Hanes talked partisan lines when he spoke at the conservative-led Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity in Chapel Hill, a conference that also included an H.B. 2-besieged Gov. Pat McCrory and Rep. Rob Bryan, the Mecklenburg County Republican who is perhaps the legislature’s leading proponent of achievement school districts.
“We have decided in our political structure that we don’t want to work together for some reason,” Hanes said. “It has become valuable in this state and in this country to not work together. That is ridiculous.”
It’s important to note that Hanes’ stance on vouchers has stirred up some public education advocates because critics say the program allows state leaders to deploy badly-needed public school funds for mostly religious institutions that lack the same services and accountability standards as public schools.
Additionally, as Policy Watch has reported, some voucher-eligible schools in North Carolina have been accused of open discrimination, including one Lee County Christian school that required its students and parents to sign a pledge opposing homosexuality.
For his part, Hanes told Policy Watch in January that he opposed discrimination against the state’s LGBTQ residents, and that he would be pushing a non-discrimination policy for voucher schools when the legislature reconvened.
Hanes was questioned Thursday by moderator Jeanne Allen, right-wing activist and founder of the conservative Center for Education Reform and a champion for the school choice movement who referred to McCrory as “the new education governor.”
Allen also quipped, referencing the presumed GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, “We want to make America great again. Yes, I’m going there.”
At one point, Allen noted Hanes has a history of working with Republicans, asking, “How can we get you to do that more?”
Hanes joked that he sometimes meets with Rep. Bryan “off-campus,” so as not to stir up controversy.
“It’s something that I do very carefully,” he said. “But it’s an honest approach. I think folks in Winston-Salem understand what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to lift the ships of some of our most challenged kids.”
Hanes added that he’s simply trying to draw attention to issues that “people are uncomfortable talking about.”
“We’re not paying a lot of attention to how our kids are doing, especially if they’re poor, or especially if they happen to be black or brown.”
Thursday’s conference also included a brief chat with McCrory’s senior education advisor, Catherine Truitt, who took the opportunity to pitch the governor’s proposed K-12 budget again.
Notably, Truitt also complained about the political climate in Raleigh, indicating surprise at how “the politics of education filter into everything that I do.”
In particular, Truitt talked about the governor’s move to shift the same lottery funds Hanes and other Democrats want to spend on teacher loans into funding for textbooks, digital learning supplies and training for school personnel.
Truitt said the “biggest roadblock” to the McCrory administration plans for digital learning is money.