After a spring awakening of walkouts and strikes, educators around the country are running for office in unprecedented numbers to have a say in the decisions that affect their lives and the lives of their students.
Public school educators in the right-to-work states of West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Colorado and Arizona stormed their state capitols earlier this year to demand change after decades of underfunding education left them with crumbling facilities, outdated textbooks, stagnant salaries and rising health care premiums. The demonstrations inspired many teachers to run for elected office, from school board to U.S. Congress.
“The walkouts not only secured immediate gains for kids’ learning and teacher pay, but they were also a catalyst for educators to run for office to fix the state and local governments that failed them,” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who estimates nearly 300 AFT members are running for office nationwide this year. “Teachers want a political voice to secure a safe and welcoming environment for their kids, and they also want to reverse the logic of economic austerity that has made crumbling classrooms and torn textbooks the norm.”
In August, Jahana Hayes, a National Teacher of the Year in 2016 and a National Education Association member, won the Democratic primary for a congressional seat in Connecticut. If she wins in November, Hayes would be the state’s first African-American Democrat to serve in Congress.
Travis Brenda, a high school math teacher in rural Kentucky, shook the Republican Party in May when he pulled off a victory in the GOP primary for the state’s House of Representatives that unseated the incumbent who had consistently voted against more public school funding and was a co-sponsor of a controversial pension overhaul that was rushed through Kentucky’s House of Representatives. The pension plan was later struck down by a judge.
Brenda is one of 26 teachers and others who work in education who filed to run for office in Kentucky in 2018, according to The Washington Post. Brenda’s decision to run preceded the state’s teacher demonstrations, but the uprising lifted his campaign.
Brenda is unapologetic about taking positions that diverge with the standard Republican playbook. In addition to greater education funding, he wants the state to honor its contracts with teachers and make sure the state pension fund is fully funded. “We agreed to defer compensation, to take a lower rate of pay for the promise that we’d be taken care of when we retired,” he said, noting that Kentucky teachers are not eligible for Social Security.
Kentucky, a right-to-work state, also did away with prevailing wage. “I have not had anyone tell me that right to work has improved their family income,” Brenda said. “It has hurt family income. The people who build hospitals and repair our roads and others in the building trades are hired at a third of the rate they were hired previously.”
Brenda hopes he can bring back the ideals of bipartisanship and compromise that once governed lawmaking. “We need to have people who can work together,” he said.
Christine Marsh, a candidate for the Arizona State Senate, vividly recalls a question a student in her high school English class in Phoenix asked her about two years ago: “Are kids in Arizona worth less than kids in other states?”
“The student’s comment was related to a discussion we had about education funding with visiting politicians,” Marsh said. “Arizona students get so little compared to students in other states.”
Marsh, a 25-year classroom veteran, was named Arizona’s Teacher of the Year in 2016. She used that platform to advocate for reduced class size. She later wrote an opinion column for her local paper about the danger of expanding private school vouchers — which Arizona passed in March 2017.
“That really made me angry,” Marsh said. “Someone asked me to run, and I said, ‘No, you’re crazy, I’m a full-time teacher.’ But after weeks of soul-searching, I realized I needed to do it.”
In the summer of 2017, Marsh signed up for training with Emerge, an organization that prepares Democratic women for their first time on the campaign trail. By the time the teacher walkouts began this year, Marsh’s campaign was well underway.
“I was so glad when #Red4Ed took off,” she said, referring to the movement’s slogan. “Before that, I was yelling into the wind and my lone voice was not enough.”
Her goal: to help Democrats gain control of the state Senate and change the political conversation in Arizona. “Flipping the Senate would be a game changer, forcing them to talk and negotiate and bringing more diverse voices to the table,” she said. “Also, we’re in a teacher shortage crisis. Pay is an issue. We can’t attract or retain teachers. It’s a mess.”
Brianne Solomon, an art and dance teacher and a Democratic candidate for the West Virginia House of Delegates, is one of more than a dozen public educators on the ballot in West Virginia for a statehouse seat in November, according to NPR.
“We have a part-time Legislature, the State House of Delegates, that does everything to undermine progress,” Solomon said. “What can I do to be part of the solution? I’ve heard they need outsiders, and that sounds like me. I’m not afraid to stand up for people.”
Her goals: repeal the state’s right-to-work legislation, restore prevailing-wage laws and get $50 million a year in additional state funding for the pension fund.
She said the West Virginia teacher walkouts, which spawned the national protest movement, gave her campaign renewed momentum.
“The AFT spotlighted me and elevated my recognition,” she said. “Everything came together, and it was like God’s tap on my shoulder, telling me I was on the right path.”
Post-Election Day editor's note:
Here’s how the public school educators mentioned in the article above made out on Nov. 6:
Jahana Hayes, a National Teacher of the Year in 2016, won her election. She became the first African-American Democrat to represent Connecticut in the U.S. Congress.
Brianne Solomon, an art and dance teacher, lost her bid to join the West Virginia House of Delegates as a Democrat.
Travis Brenda, a high school math teacher, won a seat in the Kentucky House of Representatives. He ran as a Republican who supports investment in education and the state pension fund.
Christine Marsh, a high school English teacher, narrowly lost her bid to unseat a Republican incumbent for the Arizona State Senate in a suburban Phoenix district.