School & District Management

In These Few States, Teachers Are Not Allowed to Serve in the State Legislature

By Madeline Will — August 10, 2018 3 min read
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This spring, more than 150 current classroom teachers across the country have filed to run for their state legislatures, according to an Education Week analysis.

Many of the candidates say that it’s important for educators to be represented in the legislature, which is often tasked with voting on teacher pay raises and other education measures. But in a handful of states, current public school teachers cannot serve in these roles.

That’s according to an Education Week analysis of information collected by the National Conference of State Legislatures, which looked at state laws surrounding dual employment, the practice of holding a paid position with the state in addition to an elected office. Out of the 15 states that forbid dual employment, the nonpartisan group found that several states—including Arizona, Arkansas, and Ohio—make specific exceptions for teachers and allow them to serve as legislators. Nicholas Birdsong, a policy associate for the NCSL’s Center for Ethics in Government, said teachers are the most common exception to the rule, which is meant to avoid conflicts of interest.

But at least four states—Alabama, Alaska, Missouri, and Michigan—don’t make exceptions for teachers. If a teacher in one of those states runs for state legislature and is elected, she would have to quit her classroom job.

See also: With Successful Strikes Behind Them, Teachers Are Now Running for Office

While Alabama’s ban on public school teachers serving in the state legislature is specified in the 2017 state code, Alaska’s ban stems from a 1968 state Supreme Court ruling that sought to “guard against conflicts of interest, self-aggrandizement, concentration of power, and dilution of separation of powers,” and to “preserve independence and integrity of action and decision” on the part of lawmakers by ruling against teachers serving in the state legislature. And Michigan’s ban on teachers comes from a 1983 opinion by the then-Attorney General that said state legislators must resign from any public school employment.

In 2013, Missouri’s law on legislators being unable to hold government jobs, including teaching, made headlines, after a special education teacher was elected to the state legislature. Rep. Bryan Spencer, a Republican, wanted to take an unpaid leave of absence from his teaching job, which he had had for 22 years. His school board refused to grant him one, and he was fired.

Spencer challenged his dismissal in court, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, arguing that he was denied leave due to his conservative views on educational issues. However, a jury ruled in favor of the school board. Spencer is now seeking re-election for the fourth time.

Conflicting Schedules

Even in states without these types of laws on the books, some teachers will need to take a leave of absence to serve in the state legislature. Depending on the legislature’s calendar, it can be hard for state legislators to remain in the classroom full-time—especially if they don’t live or work near the state capitol.

For example, Kentucky Rep. Derrick Graham was a high school teacher when he won office in 2002. He told the WDRB news site that he initially tried to teach in the mornings and be in the state House in the afternoons. But it was too challenging of a schedule, and eventually he started taking leaves of absences or had a long-term substitute in place during legislative sessions.

“Most teachers [running for office] are going to have to take a leave of absence,” he said.

These might be some of the reasons why K-12 teachers make up such a small portion of state legislators. According to NCSL data, 6 percent of state legislators are also educators, as of 2015. That number includes both K-12 teachers and college educators.

Teachers are often underrepresented on state boards of education, too. Just eight states specifically set aside a seat for teachers, and of those, only four states give teachers voting rights. Another eight states expressly prohibit teachers from serving on state boards of education, which craft policies on curriculum and assessment, among other issues affecting classroom life. (The rest of the states either allow teachers to serve as board members or have no mention of policies prohibiting teachers from serving.)

Librarian Maya Riser-Kositsky contributed to this post.

Image: Jennifer Esau, an Oklahoma teacher who is running for a state Senate seat, in Claremore, Okla., leaves a house with her daughter Isabelle as they canvass her district for votes. —Brandi Simons/Education Week-File

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.