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With Successful Strikes Behind Them, Teachers Are Now Running for Office

By Madeline Will — July 17, 2018 7 min read
Jennifer Esau, center, an Oklahoma teacher who is running for a state Senate seat, talks with Sandra Yost in Claremore, Okla., as she and her 16-year-old daughter Isabelle, right, canvass her district for votes earlier this month.
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Thousands of angry teachers across the country walked out of their classrooms this spring to protest low wages, cuts to school funding, and other changes to education policy. They scored some legislative victories, but many remained frustrated that the statehouse seems far removed from the schoolhouse when it comes to their priorities.

Now, scores of teachers are turning from the picket lines to the polls with a new mantra: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

According to an Education Week analysis, at least 135 current teachers have filed to run for their state legislature—including 103 as Democrats, 28 as Republicans, and three as independents. (Many more retired teachers and administrators have filed to run, too, along with current teachers running for school boards and other local offices.) The teachers are contending for 111 legislative seats, with some races pitting educators against one another.

Those numbers reflect teachers running for office across the country, but Education Week gathered the most data in four states that had significant teacher unrest this spring: Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia.

In Oklahoma alone, 67 teachers filed to run for the state legislature. Thirteen candidates won their primary races on June 26, and 10 have moved on to the Aug. 28 primary-runoff election. Several other candidates were unopposed in the primary, bringing the total to 35 candidates still in the race.

In Kentucky, 24 teachers filed to run for the statehouse, including R. Travis Brenda, who defeated Jonathan Shell, the House majority floor leader, in the GOP primary. Brenda and 17 other teachers will be on the ballot in November.

In Arizona, where the primary election is not until Aug. 28, five teachers have filed for office. And in West Virginia, six teachers have filed. Only one was knocked out in the primary.

Energized Campaigns

Educators in these states say this has been an unprecedented display of teacher activism in state politics. While teachers running for office is not uncommon, it’s usually not so many or on such a large scale. The closest example might be the wave of about 40 teachers who sought office in Oklahoma in 2016. But in that race, only about five teachers were victorious, and candidates now say they’re more organized than the rookies two years ago.

Some of the campaigning this time around can be attributed to the teacher protests this spring: For instance, the Oklahoma candidate-filing window fell near the end of the nine-day walkout, when teachers were already fired up and at the state Capitol.

Other teachers filed to run before the demonstrations this spring, yet they say the protests brought a new energy into their campaigns.

“When I announced my candidacy last May, I couldn’t have paved a better way than what has happened with teachers within the state,” said Christine Marsh, a high school English teacher in Arizona who is running for an Arizona state Senate seat as a Democrat. “So many people in Phoenix are now really plugged in with what’s happening to education and low teacher pay. It has made voters and constituents far more knowledgeable about what’s going on and far more eager to solve the problem.”

The walkouts and protests also painted many of the current legislators as hostile toward teachers. In Kentucky, the House leader who lost his primary to a math teacher was the co-author of the controversial pension-reform bill that sparked widescale protests. Furious educators mobilized to campaign against him and ultimately voted him out of office.

In Oklahoma, Jennifer Esau, an early-childhood special education teacher, is running to unseat state Sen. Marty Quinn, a Republican. Quinn made headlines during the walkout for telling protesting teachers that if they’re unsatisfied with their pay, they should find a new profession. (He later said his comments were taken out of context.)

Jennifer Esau, an Oklahoma teacher who is running for a state Senate seat, in Claremore, Okla., leaves a house with her daughter Isabelle as they canvass her district for votes.

Esau, a Democrat, said the incident was just another example of how negative legislators have been to teachers for years. But the headlines gave a boost to her campaign: “With all his remarks, he raised me a lot of money in those two weeks [of the walkout],” she quipped.

‘Why Not Me?’

Many of the teachers who have filed for office are first-time candidates. They say they never expected to enter politics but grew so frustrated with continued cuts to education spending that they felt like they had no other choice.

“This is not something I’ve ever dreamed of or hoped for, ... but it was just too difficult to do what I do without better resources,” said Esau, who began her campaign in 2015. “I don’t see anyone else stepping up, and sometimes you just look at yourself and think, why not me?”

Cody Thompson, a high school social studies and civics teacher in Elkins, W.Va., said he filed to run for the state House at the start of this year, frustrated with low teacher pay, rising insurance premiums, and constant changes to state testing policies.

“The anger and resentment that led to the strike, those feelings have been here for a long, long time,” he said. “A lot of teachers had been dissatisfied with people who have no experience in education, no real vested interest in education, dictating laws and dictating policy.”

In his Democratic primary race in a two-representative district, Thompson got more votes than both the incumbents, knocking one out. In November, he will face the remaining incumbent and two Republican candidates.

“A lot of people have told me, ‘We think we have enough lawyers in Charleston,’ ” he said, citing as beneficial his background as a young, working teacher. The strike was also a boon to his campaign, he said, as it helped bring attention to some of the problems facing education in West Virginia. A major problem, Thompson said, is losing teachers to better-paying border states.

“I’ve considered leaving myself, but I’ve decided not to give up and change it in some ways,” he said. “If I can’t change it from the classroom, I’ll change it from the statehouse.”

Teachers running for office have to walk a fine line between their passion for education and their concern about becoming single-issue candidates.

Many of them, like Jenny Urie, a high school social studies teacher who’s running for a Kentucky House seat, say their No. 1 concern is putting more money into public schools.

“We’ve got to have adequate funding for our classrooms,” said Urie, a Democrat. “I have these nightmares about having 40 kids in a classroom and one pencil for us all to share.”

Esau said she wants to tackle some non-education-related issues, like the high numbers of incarcerated people in Oklahoma.

Still, she believes education is the root of many of the state’s problems: “If you do take care of education, a lot of these other things will be helped,” Esau said.

Variety in the Field

Among the 135 candidates who are teachers in Education Week’s analysis, about 58 percent are women.

“It’s part of this large wave of women running in 2018,” said Nicole Carlsburg, the executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, a nonpartisan organization with the goal of advancing women’s representation in politics.

She said thousands of women, many of whom are first-timers, are running for office at all levels this year.

Research from the group has found that voters tend to give women candidates from both parties an advantage on the issue of education. While the research didn’t account for candidates who are teachers, Carlsburg said voters tend to appreciate it when candidates talk about their personal experiences.

“Voters are open to candidates who haven’t held office before,” she said, adding that these teachers “are deciding to step up, and that’s really resonating with voters.”

There are at least 18 social studies teachers who have made the run—a ready-made civics lesson—although many candidates are hesitant to discuss their campaign in the classroom. Thompson, the West Virginia civics teacher, said his students have asked him about his campaign, and while he doesn’t discuss politics with them, sharing the logistics of his experience “brought real life into the classroom.”

Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the National Education Association, said candidates who are teachers would bring a fresh, much-needed perspective to state legislatures.

“We’ve got plenty of businesspeople, we have plenty of rich people, we have plenty of lawyers,” she said. “Why not have somebody with that common-sense community grounding that a school teacher would have?”

Librarian Maya Riser-Kositsky contributed to this story
A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2018 edition of Education Week as Next Up in Teacher Activism: Run for State Office

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