Teacher Activists Take Fight to the Polls

Teachers to flex labor muscle as midterm elections approach
By Daarel Burnette II — May 11, 2018 6 min read
From left, Lynette Guck, Allegra Fullerton, and Jeanne Lunn review petitions for a campaign funding disclosure amendment in Scottsdale, Ariz. Many education advocates are supporting that cause, along with efforts to raise taxes for more school funding and to roll back the state’s expanded voucher law.

Fresh off a wave of teacher strikes and grassroots demonstrations, education activists are aiming to turn that momentum into structured and well-oiled campaigns in this fall’s midterm elections, especially in fiscally conservative states where politicians and school funding measures are on the ballot.

With many legislative sessions now wrapping up—and with teachers’ core demands on pay and funding still unmet in some places—union and activist-group leaders in states such as Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, and West Virginia are telling teachers and their supporters they need to keep the pressure on.

“This year’s election is a foundational year,” said Carrie Pugh, the political director for the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union. “The base is really, really motivated. Their enthusiasm is there. ... The challenge is ... how do we harness it and how do we convert that energy into voting? It’s a great problem to have.”

To keep that energy going toward the midterm elections, activists are using many of the same, sometimes unconventional tactics they used in the recent round of strikes and work stoppages.

For one thing, the rise in activism on Facebook gave teachers personalities to rally around and an opportunity to articulate to the public their real-world frustrations. The subsequent public support and partial victories provided activists a jolt of confidence.

See Also: Education Week Wants to Hear From Teachers Running for State Office

In states such as Arizona and Colorado, they used dozens of rallies to collect signatures on petitions to place school funding questions on ballots, to raise money, and to gather names and contact information for phone-bank and door-to-door campaign events this summer. They handed out T-shirts, tested out new campaign slogans, and chanted at their rallies, “We’ll remember in November.”

More than 100 teachers in Kentucky and Oklahoma have so far filed to run for state office.

Union activists will also likely pull in some help from their national headquarters. The NEA Advocacy Fund, for example, spent more than $18 million on state and federal elections in 2016, and later this week, the NEA will host a training workshop for teachers who have filed to run for office.

With the onset of summer, activists in several states worry that progress on boosting school funding could stall and even backslide.

“When there’s a big flashy event like a rally or a budget passage, that’s an easy thing to get people motivated around,” said Dawn Penich-Thacker, a spokeswoman for Save Our Schools Arizona, one of the grassroots advocacy groups that led the protests there for increased teacher pay and school funding. “But the summers here are very sleepy, it’s very hot. They go inside and watch Netflix, and it’s really hard to get them back outside.”

Arizona’s Next Battle

The underlying issues that led to the recent teacher unrest remain in many states.


Leaders of Arizona’s teacher-activist groups, for example, are highly skeptical of the deal they made with Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and now see their recent statewide strike as just the beginning, rather than the climax, of their activism.

They originally demanded a $1 billion infusion into public schools, a 20 percent pay raise by this fall (with step and ladder increases) and a moratorium on all tax cuts. But what ultimately passed amounted to a 20 percent pay raise by 2020, with half that money coming from projected revenue increases from a buoyed economy.

With few options on the table, teachers headed back to school earlier this month but are targeting Ducey and several legislators in their re-election bids this fall.

Activists are also throwing their weight around in two controversial campaign issues in this year’s election that deal with school funding.

Save Our Schools Arizona, for example, is campaigning to overturn the state’s expansive voucher program, which after a long-running battle, is subject to a vote.

Another ballot measure seeks to raise income taxes on the state’s wealthiest 1 percent in order to provide $690 million to its public schools. Arizona Center for Economic Progress, a group leading that endeavor, needs 150,642 valid signatures from registered Arizona voters before July 5 in order to get the measure on the ballot.

Penich-Thacker said that Save Our Schools has spent a large portion of the more than $200,000 raised so far for legal costs and campaign efforts on T-shirts, fliers, and palm cards that boil down the group’s issues to a few talking points.

Tide of Candidates

The economic and political realities in Kentucky and Oklahoma are so bleak, leaders there say, that the only way to fight back is for teachers themselves to run for office.

After work stoppages and demonstrations, teachers in Kentucky managed to water down proposed changes to the state’s pension plan, and teachers in Oklahoma managed to get a $6,000 raise this fall. But both pension and school funding will likely be up for debate again during next year’s legislative sessions in those states. And in Oklahoma, a group of businesses are working to place on this fall’s ballot a referendum that would reverse the tax hikes used to provide teachers with their pay hike.

At least 50 teachers from each state have filed to run for a legislative seat, leaders say, and organizers are scrambling to figure out how best to push them through the May and June primaries when they’ll face popular and politically savvy incumbents. The NEA training for those teachers in Atlanta this week will focus on how to frame the issues, manage campaign funds, and canvass. West Virginia’s teachers notched an early political victory during last week’s primary when they helped GOP candidate Bill Hamilton defeat incumbent Republican state Sen. Robert Karnes, who they accused of saying some “nasty” things about teachers during their nine-day strike and introducing bills that didn’t have teachers’ best interests in mind.

Hamilton, currently a state representative, has a “free spirit and doesn’t seem to be party-bound,” said Kym Randolph, a spokeswoman for the West Virginia Education Association. “We realize there are different degrees in the severity of fiscal conservatism here. Sometimes, your moderate Republican is a good choice.”

In the meantime, the union is holding political forums across West Virginia and getting volunteers to sign up to canvass this summer. While it did see a slight uptick in campaign donations this year, the union is limited in how it can spend and organize, Randolph said.

“Our power is people and going to the polls, not necessarily in raising money,” Randolph said. “That’s where we’re trying to mobilize.”

Colorado’s ‘Army of Activists’

As thousands of teachers in Colorado gathered in front of the state’s capitol in the waning days of the legislative session, activists got to work building what they refer to as an “army of activists.” That army, said Kerrie Dallman, the president of the Colorado Education Association, is now 18,000 strong, and organizers plan to deploy their efforts this fall when the governorship and party control of the state legislature is up for grabs.

At the same time, education leaders, the teachers’ union, and a group of businesses are working to place on the ballot a measure that would ask voters to raise taxes on those making more than $150,000 a year in order to provide $1.6 billion for schools. In Colorado, voter approval is needed for any tax increases.

Despite failed efforts in the past to raise taxes, the energy this year, Dallman said, is different.

“West Virginia, I think, will always evoke inspiration among all of us,” Dallman said. “There’s a greater awareness of how elections impact our classrooms and their students. We’re all fired up now.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2018 edition of Education Week as Activists Take Fight to Polls


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