Renee Miller, an early-childhood professional-development coordinator in Scottsbluff, Neb., was sick of seeing her district consistently underfunded, and decided years ago that she wanted to run for office.
But her political experience was limited to her local union. She wasn’t sure how to launch a campaign in her small community of 1,500 people.
At a training for educators with political aspirations held here last month by the National Education Association, Miller said the process was finally starting to seem more feasible.
“This can be done,” said Miller, who is running for school board. “You don’t have to be coming out of a wealthy family or a political family.”
In the aftermath of this spring’s teacher protests for higher compensation and more school funding, many educators have launched political campaigns in hopes of shaping education policies themselves. Across the county, 158 teachers filed to run for state office this year, an Education Week analysis found.
Through its See Educators Run program, a series of trainings for NEA members seeking local or state-level office, the nation’s largest teachers’ union is tapping into this political moment.
The organization hopes to create a “candidate pipeline” for members, said Carrie Pugh, NEA’s political director. "[We felt] like our voices weren’t being represented.”
‘Soup to Nuts’
For many of these first-time candidates, the union offers a gateway into the messy world of politics.
NEA launched the program in 2017, but the number of applications nearly doubled after this spring.
See Educators Run has held three trainings since 2017 and graduated about 200 educators. Any NEA member who is running for office, or considering a run, can apply for a space, and the program is free for participants. The two-day program was designed to cover the basics of running a campaign “soup to nuts,” said Pugh.
While See Educators Run is nonpartisan, Pugh says that the program seeks out candidates who are “values-aligned": supportive of funding for public schools, collective bargaining rights, and accountability measures for charter schools. The NEA also requires that local unions sign off on candidates’ applications, as affiliates share the cost of training with the national organization. Training facilitators have backgrounds in politics: They’ve worked on campaigns or for organizations like Emily’s List and Emerge that train Democratic candidates to run for office.
Topics ran the gamut from high-level strategy (how do you craft a campaign message?) to the granular details of social-media communications (how often should you post to your candidate Facebook page?).
In one session, candidates learned how to devise a field plan for their race, calculating their vote goals and the number of volunteers needed to meet them. Parts of the process read like algebra homework: If one volunteer can knock on 15 to 20 doors an hour, and you need to knock on 1,021 doors, how many volunteers do you need to sign up for two-hour shifts?
“I knew that you had to look at registered voters and things like that,” said Thomas Denton, a retired teacher from Kentucky considering a run for state legislature. “But exactly how to crunch those numbers is what’s being answered here.”
Several candidates said fundraising would be their biggest challenge.
Know campaign-finance law inside and out, trainers told the candidates: Research the legal limits for how much individuals can contribute and the contribution filing deadlines.
In sessions, participants paired up to practice cold-calling for donations. The big takeaway? Make a clear, specific ask—even if it’s uncomfortable.
Kyla Lawrence, an assistant principal in North Little Rock, Ark., who plans to run for a seat in the state’s house of representatives in 2020, said she would have to mentally prepare to make a lot of those calls, especially to bigger donors. As a teacher, it often feels “like you don’t have the financial status to play in this arena,” she said.
Candidates were also encouraged to reference the #RedforEd movement, which became a clarion call for educators during statewide strikes this spring, while campaigning. Trainers encouraged them to talk about collective action with constituents—especially other educators—and wear the trademark bright red shirt at town halls.
Local Issues Front and Center
The message that campaigns should champion public education resonated with Carol Fleming, a speech-language pathologist in Little Rock, Ark., who plans to run for a seat in House District 38 in 2020.
But she won’t be mentioning #RedForEd by name in her campaign, she said. In Arkansas, “ ‘strike’ is a word that you do not use.”
For many candidates in attendance, this spring’s statewide strikes were inspiring but not necessarily the catalyst for running.
Lakilia Budeau, the director of a youth-services center for Paducah public schools in Kentucky, said protests across her state reinforced her notion that she could govern better than the legislators currently in office. But she had already thought about a run for state representative before this spring.
“I’m just tired of [legislators] not having their students’ and families’ interests at heart,” she said.
Candidates said the union’s role in their campaigns wouldn’t end after they left the training.
Several plan to count on their local associations as major sources of volunteer and financial support.
Robbie Jones, the head custodian in Montgomery public schools in Virginia who is running for county board of supervisors, found a campaign manager through her local union. The association’s connections are “much broader than just the school system,” she said.
The prospect of NEA continuing to help more teachers run for office is exciting for Miller, the professional-development director from Nebraska.
“I just think about all of the more average Joes that are going to be in these positions,” she said. “I feel like that’s a better representation of the American people and the people in my state.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 05, 2018 edition of Education Week as NEA Helps Teachers Vying for State Seats