The wave of teachers who ran for state office in 2018 was heralded at the time as a way to bring more attention to school funding and low teacher pay—but new research shows that it may have also contributed to the record number of women elected to the state legislature that year.
The research expands upon a databasemaintained by Education Week that tracked nearly 180 current teachers who were running for their state legislature. The researchers from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, the University of Michigan, and Brown University did an exhaustive search of all candidates in the 2018 state midterm elections and verified an additional 252 educators, bringing the total number of teacher candidates to 430. (This number does not include administrators or people who left the classroom.)
The researchers found that teacher candidates ran for office in every state with a legislative election that year except for Oregon. While the educators were highly successful in their primary races, they were less successful in the general election—only 30 percent of teacher candidates ultimately won a seat in their state legislature. Altogether, teacher candidates won 2.1 percent of all open seats in state legislatures during the 2018 midterm elections.
Many of the candidates were inspired to run for office in the wake of the Red for Ed movement. Teachers walked out of their classrooms in half a dozen states in the spring of 2018, fighting for higher wages and more school funding, and in many cases, these efforts were successful. Teachers across the country felt empowered to speak up and demand more from policymakers.
“I don’t think we can overstate the role of teacher walkouts,” said Bradley Marianno, an assistant professor or educational policy and leadership at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and an author of the paper. Researchers found that a third of the teacher candidates came from the six states that had teacher walkouts in the spring—Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky,North Carolina, Oklahoma, and West Virginia.
And there was a gendered component, too, Marianno said. Typically, women are less likely to run for office than men, but there was a mostly even split between male and female teacher candidates—51 percent vs. 49 percent. And female teachers were just as likely to win their races as male teachers, which contributed to the historic increase in the representation of women in state legislatures after the 2018 elections, Marianno said.
“Given women’s underrepresentation in the professions of typical candidates for public office, a political awakening within the teaching profession, where women outnumber men three to one ... may be one way the gap between the number of men and women who choose to run for office ultimately closes,” the researchers wrote.
The researchers also found:
- the racial demographics of teacher candidates tended to reflect the overall demographics of the teaching profession (84 percent were white, 8 percent were Black, and 6 percent were Latinx);
- 69 percent of the teacher candidates ran as Democrats and 27 percent ran as Republicans; and
- 19 percent of the teacher candidates ran as incumbents.
Incumbent teacher candidates were much more likely than newcomers to win a seat, as were those who ran unopposed in the primary. Teachers’ unions’ campaign contributions also made a difference: Every $10,000 in donations was associated with a 16 percentage point increase in the probability that a teacher candidate won the general election. (That’s probably because unions are more likely to contribute to candidates they think can win, the paper noted.)
A few states don’t allow current classroom teachers to serve in the state legislatures because of laws that forbid dual employment, the practice of holding a paid position with the state in addition to an elected office. The rule is meant to avoid conflicts of interest. Elsewhere, many teachers who are elected to state office have to take a leave of absence from school to serve, given the competing schedules.
The transition from the classroom to the legislature can be challenging, as one newly elected Oklahoma representative documented in a series of 2019 essays for Education Week. Yet teacher candidates say they ran for office because they wanted to represent the voices of students and teachers in their state’s legislature.
Still, it remains to be seen whether future elections will see similar numbers of teachers running for office.
“I think both teachers’ unions and other organizations related to education realized the benefits of having experienced educators setting education policy,” Marianno said, noting that there are now more formalized efforts to train teachers to run for public office. “I think there was a lot about that moment, though, that may not be replicated” in the future.
The researchers are now studying the policy contributions of the teachers who were elected to the state legislatures in 2018, including what bills they sponsored and what committees they served on.
See more of Education Week’s past coverage on the teachers who ran for office in 2018: