School & District Management

Teachers-Turned-Lawmakers Learn Political Ropes in First Session

By Madeline Will — June 11, 2019 9 min read
West Virginia Del. Cody Thompson, a high school civics teacher, spent his first session in the state legislature trying to represent the interests of teachers and students. Last month, he joined teachers who were protesting against a state Senate omnibus bill that included several provisions in support of school choice.
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ship. If you want to get people to vote [with you], it takes a lot of one-on-one interactions, a lot of discussion about what you’re trying to do. ... Everything is built on relationships up there.”

In the first legislative session since their election, lawmakers fresh from the classroom took on raging education policy debates about everything from establishing school vouchers to arming teachers to funding public schools. Many of the teachers-turned-lawmakers had run for office because they thought the state legislature was missing the perspective of actual educators when setting policy that would affect students and teachers.

Last year, Education Week counted nearly 180 current classroom teachers who filed to run for state legislatures across the country—a continuation of the activism seen in the wave of teacher walkouts and strikes that had swept the nation. At least 43 teachers were ultimately elected in nearly two-dozen states—34 Democrats and nine Republicans.

Education Week spoke to six of those lawmakers as they finished their first few months in office to get a sense of the transition from the schoolhouse to the statehouse.

Growing Pains

While the teachers had run for office because they were fired up about education, they found themselves having to catch up quickly in other areas.

“When you’re a legislator, you have to know about a thousand different topics,” said Oklahoma state Rep. John Waldron, a Democrat who taught high school social studies. “I found myself thrown into debates about hunting rights and animal disease pollution.”

Waldron was one of 13 teachers-turned-lawmakers who taught social studies, according to Education Week‘s analysis. But even that background didn’t fully prepare the legislators for the initial flood of information they had to learn—from parliamentary procedures to the details of major challenges facing their states.

“The first thing you learn hopefully is what you don’t know,” Waldron said. “You don’t know how the budget works. You don’t know how education funding is related to, for example, prison spending, but you start to figure those things out. You learn that you have to do more than just advocate for teachers and students. You’re there to serve the whole community.”

Once the lawmakers learned the ropes, several said they found similarities between their two roles.

“Relationship building [in the legislature] is a lot like teaching,” said Oklahoma state Sen. David Bullard, a Republican who taught high school history just across the state border in Texas. “In education, if you want to get the kid to learn, what you have to do is build a relationship. If you want to get people to vote [with you], it takes a lot of one-on-one interactions, a lot of discussion about what you’re trying to do. ... Everything is built on relationships up there.”

Reality Check

The second major obstacle for many of these first-time legislators was realizing that although they had big plans for what they wanted to accomplish, it was harder to put those plans in action. For some, even getting into the room where early decisions on education issues were being made proved difficult.

“After teaching for 30-plus years, of course I wanted to be on the education committee,” said Arkansas state Rep. Tippi McCullough, a Democrat who taught high school English.

But the decision wasn’t up to her. The Republican speaker of the house placed her on the Revenue and Taxation and Aging, Children, and Youth, Legislative and Military Affairs committees. “I was disappointed, but it doesn’t matter what committee you’re on, you’re going to learn a lot,” McCullough said.

Kentucky state Rep. Travis Brenda, a Republican who teaches high school math, was elected by teachers who were furious over proposed pension changes his predecessor had made last year. Brenda had pledged to protect teachers’ pensions—but progress was slow-moving this year. In a bipartisan working group, “we did look at some of the pension issues,” he said. “We did not come up with any solutions.”

Brenda and another legislator who had been a superintendent co-sponsored a bill that would not affect current teachers’ pensions and would only make changes to future teachers’ retirement, while still keeping them under the defined-benefit pension system. The bill didn’t go anywhere.

“Some of it was frustrating in that, OK, here’s a lot of people who are wanting to have this addressed, but right now, we’re just waiting to see what others want,” he said, adding that he hopes the legislature will take up his bill next session.

Schooling Other Legislators

Several teacher-lawmakers said they felt like they offered a valuable perspective to the legislature when debating education issues.

“I was not teaching my students at the moment, but I was teaching other legislators about school and what we need and what’s really important,” said West Virginia state Del. Cody Thompson, a Democrat who teaches high school civics.

For example, some legislators were considering requiring annual classroom observations for all teachers. The state already requires that all teachers are evaluated annually, and just mandates observations for teachers in their first five years.

Thompson was concerned about that proposal, and told his colleagues that principals are already overburdened. And while he understood that the legislators were trying to improve teacher quality, Thompson said he argued that this wouldn’t be the best way to do so. Ultimately, the legislators dropped the proposal.

Another time, Thompson was part of a debate about a bill to require schools to put cameras in special education classrooms upon request to protect students. Thompson argued against the bill, citing logistical concerns. The sponsor didn’t have answers to all his questions, he said, but the bill passed anyway.

That was frustrating, he said, and highlighted the need for more teacher voices in policymaking.

“Legislators don’t know what it’s like to be in the classroom with 30 students and to run out of desks because of overcrowding,” Thompson said. “There’s a lot of stuff that ... we could do if we had more teachers in office.”

Caught in the Middle

Last year, many teachers were inspired to run for their state legislatures after the walkouts in several states, including Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Arizona.

This year, major work stoppages happened again in Kentucky and West Virginia—and teachers who were elected there found themselves on the other side of the protest.

Seeing teachers protesting while being a member of the lawmaking body was surreal, Thompson said.

“I’m not saying that the other [legislators] who aren’t teachers aren’t passionate and doing the right thing,” he said. “But it affects me personally, it affects my profession. I realize what’s at stake.”

In Kentucky, droves of teachers called in sick to protest a series of bills at the state Capitol, forcing schools to close on several occasions. Brenda said he was supportive up to a point, but was frustrated when teachers continued to call out sick en masse after some districts agreed to allow a group of teachers from each school to protest at the state Capitol as representatives.

“I spoke with a few teachers at the end of the day and said, ‘Guys, this really did not help your cause, I’m afraid this is going to cause some damage to public perception,’” he said, adding that one of the sickouts was on the day when high school juniors were scheduled to take the ACT. “It really gave ammunition to the ones on the other side who were saying teachers are just worried about themselves.”

But at the same time, Brenda was also defending teachers to legislators. He overheard some lawmakers talking about how protesting teachers had blocked the elevators during a medical emergency at the state Capitol—but Brenda saw firsthand that the teachers had moved out of the way for the emergency crew.

“I feel like I was able to clear up some misconceptions,” he said.

No Magic Wands

Despite the challenges, the educator-lawmakers felt like they accomplished some goals at the end of their first legislative session.

For Waldron, the Democrat in Oklahoma, he took to heart advice from a former legislator who told him he won’t have a magic wand to fix everything. Instead, he’ll have yeast—and his job is to “put it in the mix and get something to rise.”

Waldron and other legislators with education backgrounds convened a task force—called the Edvocates—to discuss education bills coming through the pipeline and hear from experts and other followers of education policy in the state. They ended up with more than a dozen legislators from both chambers and both sides of the aisle.

"[We were] having fresh and stimulating debates over education policy,” Waldron said. “My attempt to be like yeast and help things rise was to raise the level of discussion.”

Still, Bullard, the Republican state senator in Oklahoma, said he didn’t have many bipartisan conversations with other educator-legislators. He felt like Democrats were trying to “push a narrative of education abuse” instead of appreciating the investments the legislature had made in public education.

Instead, one of his big accomplishments this session was sponsoring a bill to give local school boards the authority to authorize qualified educators to carry a handgun. The legislation is pending and will be up for debate next session, he said.

“In Oklahoma, we have enough smaller schools where we don’t even have a resource officer. ... We’re just vulnerable,” Bullard said. “We don’t want to leave our kids defenseless.”

Meanwhile, Maryland state Del. Harry Bhandari, a Democrat who teaches high school English, introduced a bill that became law. The legislation requires the state education department to lend hearing aids and other language resources to parents of children who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Drawing from his own teaching experience helped him as he persuaded his fellow delegates to vote for the measure, Bhandari said.

“People like a more authentic voice,” he said. “I’ve been teaching for years. People believe in you.”

Still Teaching?

In Oklahoma, legislators have to resign as public school teachers—and can’t go back to school until two years after they finish their last term in office. Waldron said he’s going to try to find a private school that will let him teach part time.

Meanwhile, Brenda in Kentucky continued teaching while serving as a legislator. His superintendent allowed him to get a long-term substitute during the session as long as he makes up his contract days—which he’s doing through teaching summer school and working with the high school’s robotics team.

Thompson in West Virginia took an unpaid leave of absence during the session, but he said it’s still been like having two full-time jobs.

“When I was in the legislature, I would be lawmaking and going to committees and on the floor and making speeches, but in the evenings, I would be checking in with my colleagues back at Elkins High School,” he said.

McCullough in Arkansas resigned from teaching after 33 years.

“I didn’t want to shortchange my students, and I didn’t want to shortchange my district,” she said. “I might be able to be more effective where I am in the legislature in a big, general way than I could ever be in the classroom.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2019 edition of Education Week as Teachers-Turned-Lawmakers Learn Political Ropes in First Session

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