A record number of teachers will be on ballots across the country come November 6, competing for seats in state legislatures, Congress, and governors’ offices.
About 1,500 current and former educators are running for state and federal office, more than triple the number who usually run for office in an election cycle, according to new data from the National Education Association that was shared with Vox.
Most candidates are Democrats; about a third are Republicans. Some have never run for office, and others have been in office for years. They include current and former teachers, school principals, and guidance counselors. Their political platforms vary, but most agree on one thing: The government needs to invest a lot more in public education.
The spike in candidates is a direct result of widespread teacher strikes that swept red states and swing states earlier this year.
In February, a nine-day strike in West Virginia closed every school in the state and forced lawmakers to give teachers a raise. Teachers in Arizona, Kentucky, and Oklahoma also organized strikes, with varying degrees of success. Frustrated with state lawmakers who cut taxes and gutted school spending, many teachers decided that the best solution is simply to unseat them.
“What we are witnessing is not a moment but a movement of and by educators running for office to fight for the public schools our students deserve,” wrote Carrie Pugh, senior political director for the National Education Association (NEA) in a memo to the union’s president earlier this week. “Educators deserve better than bottom-of-the-barrel pay and having to pay out of pocket for basic classroom supplies.”
Teachers pushed education into the national spotlight
Teachers running for office are focusing mostly on state races, where most of the decisions about school funding play out. But raising teacher pay and boosting funding for schools have become national issues in this election cycle as well.
Democratic leaders in Congress have even made both issues a central part of the party’s platform. Basically, Democrats are promising to raise taxes on the rich to give teachers a raise.
In May, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi announced their new plan, which would give $50 billion to states and school districts over 10 years to pay for teacher raises and recruitment efforts. It would also create a new $50 billion fund for school infrastructure and resources, like new desks and books.
Democrats will likely receive strong support for this plan among members of Congress who are former educators, though it’s unclear how many there are. However, 20 teachers and educators filed to run for House seats across the country this election cycle, according to the NEA’s data. Nine of them won their primaries.
One of them is Jahana Hayes, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, who is running on the Democratic ticket to represent Connecticut’s Fifth Congressional District, a seat currently held by Democrat Elizabeth Etsy. Hayes is a former history teacher, and said she was encouraged to run by many students, including her own. One of her goals is to expand early childhood education:
The lasting impact that Early Childhood Education has on our young people cannot be understated. Children with access to quality education early on in life are more likely to succeed in school and be healthier, more engaged socially, and economically prosperous.— Jahana Hayes for Congress (@JahanaHayesCT) October 23, 2018
If Hayes wins, she will be the first African-American woman to represent Connecticut in Congress.
Another first-time candidate is Dana Cottrell, who is running as a Democrat to represent Florida’s 11th Congressional District. She is trying to unseat one of Florida’s longest-serving politicians, Republican Rep. Daniel Webster, who has represented the district for four decades. Cottrell, a former middle school teacher, shares some of Webster’s conservative views on government spending and gun ownership. But they vary on nearly everything else.
Cottrell also supports Medicare-for-all and finding a permanent legal status for the children of undocumented immigrants who are part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. When it comes to education, she opposes using government money to fund for-profit charter schools and opposes the idea of arming teachers to make schools safer.
“If we truly want to begin to ease the income gap, college and advanced trade schools, while a student is in good academic standing, should be tuition-free,” she says on her website.
While Cottrell and Hayes are running as Democrats, hundreds of teachers are on the Republican ticket in state races.
The teacher strikes made public education a bipartisan issue
This year’s wave of teacher activism pushed school funding into the national conversation, and showed that it’s an issue with broad bipartisan support.
While most teacher candidates on the ballot are Democrats, a fair share are Republicans (1,022 Democrats versus 433 Republicans in state legislative races, according to the NEA). Republican teachers first flexed their political clout during the primary season, unseating more than a dozen Republican lawmakers who had cut taxes, gutted funding for public schools and rolled back benefits for teachers.
One of the most striking upsets happened in Kentucky in May.
Travis Brenda, a Republican high school math teacher with no political experience, unseated one of the state’s most powerful lawmakers — state House Republican leader Jonathan Shell. Shell was a rising GOP star endorsed by US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.
It was Brenda’s first bid for public office, and he was channeling teachers’ anger at state lawmakers who voted to roll back pension benefits for teachers and state employees. Shell was a co-author of the controversial bill, which moved all incoming teachers into a hybrid pension system that operates more like a 401(k).
Lawmakers voted for the bill in a hurry on one of the last days of the legislative session, and the bill’s text was never made available to the public before the vote.
Republican Gov. Matt Bevin then signed the bill, prompting thousands of teachers to rally at the state Capitol in April, closing schools in more than 30 districts.
The teacher strikes in Kentucky were not enough to stop lawmakers from rolling back their pension benefits, but teachers did succeed in pressuring lawmakers to boost education funding — though they did that by raising taxes on everyone except the wealthiest Kentuckians.
Anger about the pension bill and the resulting backlash from educators pushed dozens of teachers in the state to run for office. At least 40 educators and former teachers had put their names on the ballot, according to the Associated Press. About 16 of those candidates had primaries in May, and seven of them won.
Brenda considers himself a moderate conservative, and has run a pro-education campaign, though Republican Party leaders discouraged him from doing that. “They told me to avoid talking about education, because that’s not one of ‘our’ strong points,” he told the Christian Science Monitor. “But that’s what won the election for me.”
Brenda and hundreds of other teachers who will be on the ballot on Tuesday now have a chance to prove that supporting education is a winning strategy for Democrats and Republicans.