Jahana Hayes, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, has won her race for a U.S. House seat, representing Connecticut’s 5th district.
A former high school history teacher and current district administrator, Hayes, a Democrat, will be the first black woman from the state to serve in Congress.
In her victory speech Tuesday night in Waterbury, Conn., Hayes noted the historic nature of her bid for office. “Yesterday marked 50 years since Shirley Chisholm was elected as the first African-American woman to go to Congress,” she said. “Today we made history. This history teacher is making history.”
Hayes defeated Republican Manny Santos, a Marine veteran and immigrant from Portugal, for the open seat. Santos is a former one-term mayor of Meriden, Conn., and a supporter of President Donald Trump.
During an election cycle in which more than 170 current teachers ran for office—about 100 of them making it past their primaries—Hayes put education at the forefront of her campaign. Her platform called for more resources, support, and training for teachers, as well as increasing career-readiness training for students and making college more affordable.
She is also part of the wave of first-time Democratic candidates—which includes many women of color—who ran this year on progressive platforms. She’s advocated for single-payer health care, raising the minimum wage, and creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. She has said that Congress needs to look more like the population that it’s representing.
“People have said to me, ‘She doesn’t have what it takes. She’s not built for this,’ ” she said, during her victory speech. “Not only am I built for this, I’m Brass City built for it,” said Hayes, referencing Waterbury, where she grew up and taught.
A Student-Centered Approach to Policy
Hayes said her win demonstrated that voters “believe that we have to protect the future that we promise for our kids.” As a 15-year veteran teacher and administrator in the Waterbury, Conn., public schools, Hayes’ work with students has informed her views on education policy.
On the campaign trail, she voiced strong opposition to arming teachers, saying that putting guns in educators’ hands would only make schools more dangerous. In an Oct. 17 debate against Santos, Hayes said that she supports the right to own firearms—she’s married to a police officer and has said she has guns in her home—but that teachers shouldn’t be tasked with operating a gun in a crisis situation.
“I worked in a high school with 1,300 children. I would never want the responsibility of securing a firearm in that building,” she said during the debate last month. “I would never want to have to explain to a parent that I did not lock my desk, or I thought it was on my person, or I’m not sure how your child got ahold of my gun.”
Santos, referencing the news that the U.S. Department of Education wouldn’t prevent states from using federal funds to arm staff, said he thought individual communities should be able to make the decision based on the local context.
Connecticut’s 5th district encompasses Newtown, where a gunman shot and killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
Given this context, said Hayes, “any conversation that begins with arming teachers is so incredibly tone deaf, and does not recognize the hurt and the pain that this community is still dealing with on a daily basis.”
Hayes also said she would advocate to maintain protections for LGBTQ students and prevent civil rights protections from “being ripped away.”
When highlighting the value of education, Hayes has often referenced her own childhood. She grew up in public housing in Waterbury, raised by her grandmother as her mother struggled with addiction. Hayes became pregnant with her first child while in high school.
“Teachers exposed me to a different world by letting me borrow books to read at home and sharing stories about their college experiences,” she wrote in her National Teacher of the Year application. “They challenged me to dream bigger and imagine myself in a different set of circumstances.”
Hayes is a strong proponent of service learning and civic awareness.
In her work as a teacher, it was important to Hayes that her students—most of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds—had the opportunity to participate in the community. “These kids are reminded that they too can be givers,” she told Education Week in 2016. Hayes has said that it was her students who inspired her run for office.
Hayes, who was the favored candidate for the seat that has been held by Democrats for the past 10 years, outraised her opponent by more than $1 million and saw support from established players in Connecticut politics. Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, for example, who held that Congressional seat from 2007 to 2013, campaigned with her.
“Jahana is really now a rising in star in Connecticut politics, even though she’s never held any elected office before,” Gary Rose, the chair of the department of government at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., said in an interview earlier this week.
Having won the National Teacher of the Year award lent Hayes name recognition and trust in the race, said Rose. But the conditions that have been driving teachers across the country to run for office—underresourced schools and low pay—aren’t as central to the Connecticut district’s congressional race, he said. Instead, taxes, jobs, and the economy are bigger concerns there.
But for Hayes, education is inextricably tied to these issues.
“When we’re having a conversation about jobs and the economy, I’m thinking about the child who comes into my classroom and says, ‘We’re changing schools because we have to move because we lost our house,” she said in the Oct. 17 debate. “When we’re talking about policies, I’m thinking about people.”
Now that the midterm election is over, let’s take stock of how these teacher candidates did—and where teacher political activism is likely to go from here:
A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 2018 edition of Education Week as Nationally Recognized Teacher Elected to U.S. House