RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- The North Carolina Senate on Monday night fell just short of overriding Gov. Roy Cooper's veto of Senate Bill 37, which would have mandated in-person learning options at North Carolina public schools.
The 29-20 override vote was one vote short of the 3/5th majority needed.
"Tonight, NC Senate Democrats let the kids and families of North Carolina down and showed profiles of cowardice in the face of pressure from Governor Cooper and teacher union bosses," said NCGOP Chairman Michael Whatley. "With their vote against SB 37, the Senate Democrats - including three members who previously voted in support of reopening schools - helped Governor Cooper keep schoolhouse doors across North Carolina locked. It is very disappointing that North Carolina Democrats are siding with Joe Biden and teachers unions to keep our schools closed - our kids deserve much better than this kind of naked special-interest politics."
The override still would have had to been approved by the House to be successful.
Gov. Roy Cooper said Friday that vetoed Senate Bill 37: In-Person Learning Choice for Families, because of what he called "problems" with the bill.
The governor doubled down on that position in a statement earlier Monday.
"The question on SB 37 that I vetoed is not whether our children should be in the classroom in person. They absolutely should. The question is whether we do it safely," Cooper said. "The bill allows middle and high school students to be in school without following NCDHHS and CDC guidelines on social distancing. SB 37 also removes authority from state and local officials to put students in remote learning in an emergency like a new COVID variant hitting our schools. I have asked legislative leaders to compromise with me on these two issues but so far they have not. I will continue talking with legislators and I will work diligently with the State Board of Education and the Superintendent of Public Instruction to make sure all of our children and educators are in the classroom, in person and safe."
Senate Democratic Leader Dan Blue said the general assembly needs to take Cooper's concerns into consideration.
"North Carolina has taken a careful approach to reopening our state and getting life back to normal. As a result of that deliberate leadership North Carolina is in a better position than many other states," said Senator Dan Blue. "We want to take that same careful approach getting kids back into the classroom," Blue said. "Governor Cooper laid out what legislators needed to do in order for this bill to become law. We need to address the violations to DHHS and CDC guidelines. And we need to protect our local and state officials' ability to respond in an emergency. Governor Cooper's concerns were ignored by the General Assembly. That decision to ignore Governor Cooper's concerns tells me that this vote was more about scoring political points than it is about getting this right."
But Republicans said Cooper was the one who was failing to follow science and leave decision-making for middle and high schools to district leaders. They said Cooper's decision to allow teachers to get vaccinated starting last week also removed yet another barrier toward safe classrooms. The North Carolina Association of Educators, the state's leading teacher lobbying group and a strong Cooper supporter, opposed the bill, too.
North Carolina Democratic Party Chair Bobbie Richardson said the vote in the Senate "underscores just how important our efforts were to break the Republican supermajority in 2018 and re-elect Governor Cooper in 2020. As we continue to navigate this crisis, North Carolina deserves measured, steady leaders like Governor Cooper, who will lead with science and prioritize public health. North Carolina Democrats will continue to stand with Governor Cooper and ensure our children are able to attend in-person instruction safely."
The GOP measure, which is now blocked permanently, had support from three Democratic senators in a final vote last month. That would have created the veto-proof margin had the vote totals remained the same Monday night. Cooper vetoed the measure last week because he said it would threaten public health -- particularly at middle and high schools - and asked lawmakers to make changes.
Senate Republicans said "flip-flopping" Democrats allowed politics to prevail over the welfare of children, noting that one Democratic senator, Paul Lowe, "flip-flopped" and another Sen. Ben Clark, of Hoke County, declined to come to session to vote on the veto override.
Senate Republicans pointed out that both Lowe, of Forsyth County, and Clark originally voted to pass SB 37. A third Democrat who originally voted for SB 37, Sen. Kirk deViere of Cumberland County, voted to override the veto.
"Hundreds of thousands of struggling students and desperate parents are paying the price for Gov. Cooper's political victory," said Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, who co-chairs the Senate Education Committee and sponsored Senate Bill 37. "The far-left NCAE controls education policy at the Governor's mansion and in the Democratic caucus, and some students will never recover from the destruction they've caused. It's time to fund students instead of systems. I'd like to thank Gov. Cooper for doing more than we could have imagined to advance the cause of school choice. We expect to file legislation to increase funding available to low- and middle-income families to allow them to choose the school that best fits their needs. For too many families, the public education bureaucracy is failing them."
The action comes as preliminary standardized test results show a majority of North Carolina public high school students didn't pass end-of-course exams in the fall. The results raise questions about whether the shortcomings of virtual learning have contributed to the poor figures.
State House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said the report spoke volumes about the "desperate need to get our young people back into the classroom."
"We are disappointed that students will continue to suffer from elected leaders' refusal to put their needs first, even as teachers were advanced in the vaccine priority list ahead of cancer patients under 65 to support safe classroom reopenings," Moore said. "The General Assembly leadership is committed to delivering on our state's constitutional duty to provide education access for families, and will pursue all available avenues to help North Carolina families overcome the massive learning loss forced on them by remote instruction."
The Associated Press contributed.