Already outnumbered in state-level offices, embattled Democrats nationwide are hoping to turn momentum from recent teacher protests into political gains this fall, when 36 governors and three-fourths of state legislative seats are up for grabs.
In states such as North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin, Democrats have framed themselves in political ads and candidate talking points as the party that will rescue financially struggling public schools from the grip of fiscally conservative Republicans, who fully control more than half the nation’s statehouses.
As if U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ relentless championing of charter schools and vouchers weren’t enough, millions of Americans have been bombarded by the sounds and images of striking teachers and educators rallying in Arizona, Oklahoma, and West Virginia, articulating the harm of real-life classroom cuts they attribute to Republican leadership.
Democrats are hoping it will resonate with voters of all stripes come November.
“Everybody has had a teacher who inspired them or kept them in school and, as simple as that sounds, there are few things that’s as familiar to all of us as public schools and teachers,” said Joe Thomas, the president of the Arizona Education Association.
Even the rallies around teacher pay issues that have erupted in Arizona, Oklahoma, and Kentucky have taken on political overtones. Voter registration booths lined walkways. Petitions and volunteer forms were passed around.
In Oklahoma last week, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Drew Edmondson gave teachers at the state Capitol rulers with his campaign slogan and cups of hot cocoa.
And at an especially raucous rally in Phoenix earlier this month, David Garcia, a former teacher and a Democratic candidate for governor, posed for selfies with teachers.
“Every one of these teachers is a potential voter and volunteer canvasser,” said Ian Danley, Garcia’s campaign manager, while looking out over a crowd of thousands of teachers banging cowbells, blowing whistles, and chanting slogans against incumbent Republican Gov. Doug Ducey.
Democrats are feeling hopeful that their laser-like focus on education might work this fall. Of the seven special elections for legislative seats in Oklahoma last year, Democrats seized four of them. Two of those candidates were teachers.
“We’re not using any groundbreaking techniques here,” said Anna Langthorn, the chairwoman of Oklahoma’s Democratic Party, who said education will again be a top issue on voters’ mind this fall. “We’re putting up leaders who are offering solutions for our public schools.”
An Uphill Battle
Still Democrats face a grinding, uphill battle.
Democrats fully control just eight states, compared to the 26 where Republicans control both the governorship and the legislature. Legislative districts in most states aren’t drawn toward Democrats’ favor, and knocking out of office an incumbent with both name recognition and ready-made war chests is no easy task.
As the teacher protests have rolled on, Republican leaders in Florida, Texas, and Wisconsin have made a concerted effort to detail their own efforts to increase public school funding, even while Medicare, pension, and other government costs have soared in recent years.
Besides, they point out, public school systems in Democratically controlled states such as Connecticut and Oregon aren’t necessarily flush with cash either.
Democratic efforts to exploit the fervor over teacher pay and school funding have been especially intense in Arizona. For three years now, public school funding has been a leading concern among voters, according to a poll conducted by Expect More Arizona, a nonpartisan advocacy group that pushes for improved academic outcomes.
The state is among the lowest in the nation in teacher pay, and has one of the nation’s most expansive school voucher and charter school systems.
“We’re finally coming out of the recession and our economy is healthy, but we’re in a state where politicians have over many years divorced the conversation about tax policy from the cost of funding different parts of government,” said Christine Thompson, the president and CEO of Expect More Arizona.
Democrats there haven’t held a statewide executive seat for more than a decade. But Democrats need only two seats in order to control the state Senate, and with the state’s voter registration evenly split between Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, there’s a chance Democrats could grab the governor’s seat.
After West Virginia’s recent teacher strike, Arizona’s teachers ramped up their threats, staging rallies, calling legislators, and increasingly turning their ire toward the governor. Democratic candidates have been in lock step with them.
Ducey has in recent weeks scrambled to quell the teacher-led movement dubbed “Arizona Educators United.” He and the Republican-run legislature late last month extended an 18-year-old sales tax that’s poured tens of millions of dollars into the state’s public schools, and the legislature is currently attempting to pass a budget that provides for an incremental increase in school funding.
But Ducey has not managed to boost teacher pay, an expensive task that likely will require new taxes in this conservative state. (A 1 percent pay increase would cost the state an estimated $34 million.) Arizona requires the approval of at least two-thirds of its legislature in order to pass a new tax.
As the legislation session approaches its close with a teachers’ strike seeming more likely than not, the political vitriol rhetoric has ramped up.
“Both Republicans and Democrats are for public schools but the difference is we’re realists, and we’re in power, and making reforms to make schools better,” said Republican state Sen. John Kavanagh, the vice chairman of the Senate’s appropriations committee. “The Democrats are like the emperor with no clothes.”
Business advocates, including the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the utility company Pinnacle West, are backing Ducey and have pumped $1 million into a campaign called Arizona Education Project to salvage the reputation of the state’s public school system.
“Quite frankly, there are entities in this state that see political advantage in talking down the quality of our schools,” said Matthew Benson, the spokesman for the Arizona Education Project. “Arizona schools have made a lot of progress. That’s not to say that we’re where we want to be. Because clearly, we’re not. But we’re on the right track.”
Meanwhile, leaders of Save Our Schools Arizona, which has helped organize the teacher protests, are reluctant to align themselves with a specific political party. They want higher pay and more money for schools, and say they don’t care whether Republican or Democrats do it as long as it gets done.
At the recent statehouse rally by teachers, several candidates asked to set up campaign booths—a request the Save our Schools Arizona organization ultimately denied. The group is currently debating whether to endorse candidates this fall.
“We feel there’s a little bit of a danger of developing enemies where you don’t want to have enemies,” said Dawn Penich-Thacker, a spokeswoman for Save Our Schools Arizona.
At the rally, several teachers said even if they don’t strike, they’ll express their rage at the polls this fall. One protestor held a sign that said, “I’m a teacher and I vote.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 2018 edition of Education Week as Labor Unrest Fueling Hopes Of Democrats