Even If They Lose, Teachers Who Run for Office Score a Win

Missouri teacher Conon Gillis lost his election bid to the state Senate earlier this week.
Missouri teacher Conon Gillis lost his election bid to the state Senate earlier this week.
—Image via Conon Gillis' campaign

Classroom educators have honed the qualities necessary for holding public office

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When the tallies from the teacher wave election rolled in on Nov. 6, it became clear, as Education Week reported, that educator candidates had garnered significant victories but also notable defeats.

As someone who teaches educators, this hit home with me because I once ran for statewide elected office to champion education issues.

I lost. But it was a positive experience, a crash course in politics, and a chance to get out in front of an attentive statewide audience and advocate for education. And that’s only the beginning.

It began when a politically oriented friend approached me to run in a five-way primary for Wisconsin’s state superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction—a top state office. After some trepidation, I agreed.

"Just by getting into the race, teachers bring education into the public eye."

Newspapers asked for my positions. Radio and television stations invited me on air for interviews, and they reported the race fairly. Perhaps because it was an open primary—which doesn’t require candidates to have a party affiliation to run—and perhaps because politics was less acrimonious in 2009, the race stayed high-level, and the candidates talked issues without diving into attacks. The candidates, the media, and the voters stayed respectful, and the campaign process worked.

I learned early on that a campaign is a “we,” not an “I.” I affiliated at that time with the Green Party and Progressive Dane (a local political party based in Madison—the state capital) to gather signatures, make phone calls, and get out the vote. We spent less than $10,000, but we put our pro-education message out there.

One of the candidates favored school vouchers, and I countered by advocating excellence and vibrancy in the public school system. Indulge me for a moment here, but I like to think that my passionate backing of public schools may have nudged the winning candidate in that race, Tony Evers, to take a stronger stance in favor of them.

For teachers who won or lost Tuesday, or for those considering running in the future, know that this is where you can make a difference. Teachers can change the conversation. Just by getting into the race, teachers bring education into the public eye. If they speak up for students and schools, they lay the groundwork for education—an issue that should be critical in present and future campaigns—to become top of mind for voters.

During this last campaign, a bilingual teacher named Mary Edly-Allen, who ran for a House seat in Illinois’ 51st district, wisely observed to me that teachers have honed qualities that make them good legislators: common sense and the ability to hear different points of view and challenge one’s thinking, learn something new, civilly disagree, and find solutions.

As of Wednesday, Edly-Allen appears to have lost her bid by one vote, 25,106 to 25,105. That’s a civics lesson in itself—every vote does count. Edly-Allen was motivated to run because she opposes arming classroom teachers with guns and sadly, her incumbent opponent favors that position. There’s no word yet on whether Edly-Allen will demand a recount, but even if she loses, she wins, in a sense. She put students, teachers, and education—and tolerance—on the agenda in a district in which observers found racist slurs on the incumbent’s Facebook account, according to media reports.

This election season, Wisconsin delivered a ringing victory for educators. My former opponent, Tony Evers, a lifelong educator and former classroom teacher whom I enthusiastically supported this time, won a nail-biter against incumbent Gov. Scott Walker. Walker made national news for cutting education budgets and leading the destructive 2011 effort to gut teachers’ unions and reduce funding for higher education. Walker’s approach has shown a lack of respect and support for teachers. It’s emblematic of how the political establishment has left education professionals behind, which is what spurred this year’s teacher strikes and motivated hundreds of teachers to run for office. Governor-elect Evers’ victory signals that students, teachers, and schools will become a priority.

While celebrating the teachers who won office, educators must think about the future, and how to reach out to those who voted “no.” After all, their children sit in our classrooms, too. I salute every educator who had the courage to run in this election, and I encourage others to consider it for next time. Teachers already have the skills as well as the passion to make our world better one student at a time. They can accelerate that process by stepping up to leadership.

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