States

Teachers Aren’t Just Running for Office—They’re Winning

By Madeline Will — September 24, 2018 6 min read
Former National Teacher of the Year recipient Jahana Hayes celebrates after winning the Democratic primary for Connecticut's 5th Congressional District in August.
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It’s a trend noted by the news media, teachers’ unions, and educators themselves: Fed up with the state of public education, teachers are running for office.

And now, a new Education Week analysis shows that teachers are not only running—they’re winning.

Out of the 158 current classroom teachers that Education Week confirmed were running for their state legislature, 101 have moved on to the general election. Thirty-seven of those teachers won their primaries, while 59 ran unopposed. Five are running as write-in candidates, so they didn’t have to go through a primary.

“If even just a handful of us win a seat [in November], ... then teachers will have a voice at the Capitol—and we haven’t had one in so very long,” said Jennifer Samuels, an 8th grade teacher who is running for Arizona’s House as a Democrat.

While these teachers are scattered across the country in 32 states, many are in Oklahoma—15 teachers won their primaries there, and 12 additional teachers in the Sooner State were unopposed. That’s about a 42 percent success rate so far for the 64 teachers there who filed to run.

In Kentucky, there are five candidates running write-in campaigns, seven teachers were unopposed in the primary, and three teachers defeated their opponents—meaning 15 teachers out of 20 who started campaigns have advanced to the general election.

In Arizona, three teachers have moved on to the general election, and in West Virginia, six have advanced. In both of those states, only one teacher was knocked out during the primaries.

Most of these educators are first-time candidates, with little political experience. But they have one major advantage: They are riding the wave of teacher activism that began in a half-dozen states, including Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia, in the spring.

In those states, teachers walked out of their classrooms to protest low wages, cuts to school funding, and, at least in Kentucky, changes to the state’s public pension system.

“These days, when I come to [voters’] doors and say, ‘Hey, I’m a public school teacher running for the legislature. You know why I’m here, don’t you?'—at that point, they’ll say, ‘Yes, we know,’ ” said John Waldron, a high school social studies teacher who is running for Oklahoma’s House as a Democrat. “People get that education hasn’t been funded, and it’s a crisis in Oklahoma.”

After 10 years without pay raises, teachers in Oklahoma received an average $6,100 boost this spring, although they still walked out of their classrooms to call for more school funding.

‘Year of the Teacher’

While Education Week‘s analysis only includes teachers competing for state legislative seats, educators are also running in the general election for other high-profile positions. In Connecticut, Jahana Hayes, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, won the Democratic primary for an open U.S. House of Representatives seat. Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, a former teacher, narrowly won the primary for governor of Minnesota. And Wisconsin schools Superintendent Tony Evers took the Democratic nomination for governor in that state.

Many retired teachers and administrators are running for state office this year, too, as well as teachers who are seeking election to school boards and other local offices.

It’s the “year of the teacher,” Waldron said. “Teachers want to make the world a better place, and now we’re finding an appropriate venue for doing that in the field of politics.”

Booker T. Washington High School teacher John Waldron and other educators walk on Route 66 between Tulsa and Sapulpa on their way to the Oklahoma State Capitol to protest education funding last April. Waldron is running for Oklahoma's House as a Democrat.

Educators say voters are especially attuned to the problems in public education after the walkouts. That engagement, along with a boost in donations and volunteers, is a major factor behind their primary wins.

In Kentucky’s Republican primary, for instance, a high school math teacher beat out the incumbent, who is a House majority floor leader and an author of the controversial pension-reform plan that sparked the state’s widescale teacher protests. R. Travis Brenda has credited his victory to massive support from educators.

And in Oklahoma, Craig Hoxie, a high school science teacher, is hoping to unseat the House majority whip, GOP state Rep. Terry O’Donnell. O’Donnell voted for teacher pay raises, but Hoxie said he has failed to take significant action to improve public education.

“He’s part of the leadership that has failed for so many years now to bring about real change,” he said.

For Jennie Scott, a 4th grade teacher who is running for Oklahoma’s House as a Democrat, her status as a teacher might have given her an advantage in the primary, too.

She said she was more informed than her opponent about specific solutions to issues like teacher shortages. And voters seemed receptive to listening to her, Scott said.

“Teachers are a very trusted part of our community for the most part,” she said. “We entrust our children with teachers.”

Second Time Around

While most of the teachers running for office this year are first-time candidates, a few are on their second lap. In 2016, about 40 teachers ran for the Oklahoma legislature, though many were knocked out during the primary. Only about five teachers were victorious overall.

Some of those educators now say they’re more experienced and better organized than they were two years ago, when they struggled to raise money and articulate their vision to enough voters.

“I think I’m in a much better, stronger position,” said Waldron, who ran for the state Senate in 2016 and lost in the general election.

So far in his race—this time for the state House—he’s knocked on 10,000 doors in his district and is talking to people for the second or third time, he said.

“I bring a different energy to the door now,” he said. “I’m not there to confront people or argue with them. Instead of meeting them head-to-head, I’m standing there side to side and pointing out what’s wrong with our state.”

There is also more collaboration among the teachers this time, he said—just last month, there was a union-organized campaign rally for the dozen teachers running for office in the Tulsa area.

Waldron said it’s easier to get both campaign contributions and volunteers this year. That’s partly because of his previous campaign, he said, but it’s also because of the new political awareness of the problems facing schools in the state.

Indeed, the state’s teacher walkout has changed the tone of the campaign by placing education at the top of voters’ minds, said Jacobi Crowley, a crisis interventionist in the Lawton school district who is running for the Oklahoma House again, after losing in 2016.

“This April really provided that wave of enthusiasm and hope [for] something different,” he said.

A Diverse Field

Many of the teachers running this year are also part of another historic movement: More women are seeking political office than ever before, experts say. Indeed, more than half the candidates in Education Week‘s database are women (although that’s still a much smaller percentage than the percentage of all teachers who are female).

And while about 88 percent of the teachers who will be on the ballot in November are Democrats, candidates say their conversations on public education with voters often transcend party lines.

“Public school funding is an issue that most people agree should not be a partisan issue,” said Joe Bisaccia, a middle school teacher who’s running for the Arizona House.

Sarah Carnes, a high school art teacher who’s vying for the state House in Oklahoma as a Democrat, said that she makes a point to tell Republican voters: “I’m here to represent everybody, because that’s what I’ve been doing as a teacher.”

The experience of working in diverse schools has paid off in her campaign, she said.

“Ultimately, teachers are really good mediators and mentors, and we help solve problems in the classroom, and we work with parents hand in hand,” Carnes said. “We want to help everybody, that’s why we have giving hearts. I think that’s what’s connecting and resonating with the constituents right now.”

Librarian Maya Riser-Kositsky contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the September 26, 2018 edition of Education Week as Teachers Running for Office Show Strength in Primaries


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