Can Teachers Shake Up State Elections?

By Daarel Burnette II — October 24, 2017 3 min read
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The National Education Association suggested during a conference of progressive legislators last month that teachers themselves ought to run for office.

Education issues such as school funding, charter schools and busing are sometimes described as the third rail of politics and knows no traditional political bounds. But everyone loves teachers. Right?

So at a time when arguments about race, immigration and sexual freedom pits people against each other maybe a winning strategy for Democrats in states (most of which are run by Republicans) is to line up a bunch of teachers to run for office.

Last year, I flew to Oklahoma where this suggestion, posted in an online forum for teachers, inspired more than 40 teachers to run for the state’s legislature.

Massive cuts to the state’s education budget has long been in the Sooner State’s news cycle and students, parents and their friends started feeling and seeing subsequent real-life pains: long-term substitute teachers, large class sizes and the cancelling of after-school activities.

In neighboring Kansas, meanwhile, 50 teachers ran for office

Kansas’ political scene, like Oklahoma’s, has been roiled by a dramatic drop in state tax revenue, which has disproportionatly impacted the school system. The state’s supreme court last month ruled that the state must spend hundreds of millions more on its schools, in order to comply with the Kansas Constitution.

The results in Oklahoma and Kansas were mixed. Five teachers won in Oklahoma and two won in Kansas.

I interviewed last week Brett Parker, a Democratic representative in the Kansas House and a current English-Language teacher at Countryside Elementary School in the Olathe district, to discuss what teachers can bring to state politics.

Parker successfully ran in 2016 for the House’s 29th District seat which, for years, had been represented by a Republican.

Below is my Q&A with Parker, edited for brevity and clarity.

Education Week: What made you want to run for office?

Parker: I’ve always been interested in current events and that’s only grown over the years. As a teacher, I got involved in the local teachers association and then became a building rep and then voted onto the executive board. After that, I was looking for ways we could make difference at the state level. At an NEA meeting, they were talking early on about recruiting candidates for the 2016 race. I started asking everyone what they thought of me running for office and nobody told me that I was crazy. I thought this could be my part in trying to put things back together. It was pretty clear that from things happening in Topeka that there was a lack of respect for school teachers and a failure to see the challenges that we face.

EW: Do you think being a teacher helped you win?

Parker: It made it easier to talk about all those things. About 80 percent of campagining is going out and talking to people on their doorsteps. When you can talk about your experiencea as a teacher, it’s not just a talking point, it’s a lived experience. Politics are pretty polarizing but when your local teacher runs for office, it has a chance to cut through that to a large extent.

EW: Did your perspective on the state’s budget woes change once you became a politician tasked with fixing it?

The natural experience for people when they run for office is they run on change. Everything is terrible and they want to make it better. I imagined that when I got there, (the state’s budget crisis) wouldn’t be as bad as I originally thought it would be and that I’d take back some things I said in the campaign. But, in reality, I think I underestimated how severe this problem is. Getting there and seeing the budget numbers was sobering even for a group of people who were running on change.

Parker: Did you think being a teacher makes you a better politician?

We sort of underestimate what being each and every day up in front of a group of people, doing presentations can prepare you for. We’re constantly taking large amounts of information and synthesyzing it and presenting it to a group of people. There are a lot of skills teachers have that fly under the radar. We’ve already been training for a lot of these things without even knowing it. The sheer number of individual executive choices, that a teacher makes in a day is similar to what a politician does. We’re constantly making decisions with the information that’s in front of us and moving ahead with it. So I think I got a lot of practice before I got here.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.