A new candidate class: schoolteachers running for office

Why We Wrote This

Teachers experienced strength in numbers when tens of thousands went on strike this year. Many were emboldened to enter politics. What will they do if elected?

Ross D. Franklin/AP/File
National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia speaks at the #RedForEd news conference in Phoenix, April 25, 2018. Teachers are running in unprecedented numbers in the US midterms, empowered by successful protests in several states for higher pay and increased school spending.

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A litany of pent-up grievances is propelling a wave of office-seeking educators. And it starts and ends with money: from teachers paying for supplies, and watching their pensions and salaries shrink, to colleagues’ jobs being eliminated. This fall across the country, teacher activism continues past the strikes that took place in several states this year, with record numbers of educators on ballots in the general election. The National Education Association says more than 1,400 are running for seats in state legislatures this November, and several are in races for Congress. The culprits in this dissatisfaction, according to educators and think-tank analysts, are state legislatures instituting supply-side economic strategies that cut taxes and starve public education budgets. Says Meg Wiehe of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, “The average tax cut for a North Carolina millionaire is about $45,000, which is nearly the equivalent to an annual teacher’s salary of about $51,000.” Kentucky high school math teacher R. Travis Brenda won his primary against a rising GOP star. “There can’t be anymore of that ‘do more with less’ the legislature has been demanding of teachers,” says Mr. Brenda.

When public school teachers in West Virginia heard last winter that their health insurance premiums would skyrocket, Brianne Solomon wasn’t sure anything could be done about it. Educators like her were grumbling, to be sure, but their union’s clout in this right-to-work state was questionable.

“I have the equivalent of three master’s degrees, and I’m barely making $45,000,” she says. When the state legislature proposed doubling healthcare costs, it erased what Ms. Solomon calls the “consolation prize” of good benefits that she’d depended on while her salary remained static over the years.  

The ensuing walkout by nearly 20,000 West Virginia teachers – the first of seven states to see strikes this year – won a 5 percent pay raise and a one-year freeze on healthcare hikes. And this fall across the country, teacher activism continues with record numbers of educators on ballots in the general election. Solomon has been teaching art and music for 15 years, but today she’s also one of more than 1,400 educators the National Education Association says is running for seats in state legislatures this November. Several more are still on ballots for Congress. 

“I thought, ‘Well, here’s my chance to do something,’ ” Solomon says. “I have emailed my representatives. I have made phone calls. I have attended meetings. But nobody seems to be listening. So I guess I’m just gonna have to replace ’em.”

Propelling this wave of office-seeking educators is a litany of pent-up grievances, encompassing not only teacher compensation but declining funding that directly affects students. The culprits, according to educators and think-tank analysts: state legislatures instituting supply-side economic strategies that cut taxes and starve public education budgets.

North Carolina, one of six states where teachers held strikes before school let out last spring, “is an example of how lawmakers have prioritized tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy over public services,” says Meg Wiehe, deputy director of the Washington, DC-based Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, and a North Carolina resident. “The big tax-cutting spree started here in 2013, and they’ve continued cutting.”

Ms. Wiehe says many legislators insist they’ve “given more to education this year than last year. But the reality is, we’re still in a worse place than we were, pre-recession,” she adds, explaining that the state will have about $3.6 billion less to spend next year, after five years of reducing taxes.

“The average tax cut for a North Carolina millionaire is about $45,000, which is nearly the equivalent to an annual teacher’s salary of about $51,000,” Wiehe says.

The 2018 PDK poll, which annually measures attitudes toward public schools, found 78 percent of public school parents would support teachers in their own communities if they went on strike for higher pay. Two-thirds of Americans say teachers’ salaries are too low.

In Kentucky, where the teacher pension plan looked to be eviscerated, high school math teacher R. Travis Brenda entered the Republican primary – and, by a razor-thin margin, in May ousted House Majority Floor Leader Jonathan Shell. A measure of Mr. Shell’s stature in the party is that it’s said he’s being groomed to run eventually for the US Senate seat held by majority leader Mitch McConnell.

Shell had introduced a bill to reduce teachers’ pension benefits, a move that sparked the “Red for Ed” movement in Kentucky, with its red t-shirt messaging. “I emailed [Shell] seven times to complain. I got one form letter back,” Mr. Brenda says. “We were never asking for better pay. We were just asking for what we were promised, which was a good retirement.”

Fellow Republicans dubbed Brenda an opportunist for running a pro-public education campaign. “Some of them,” he remembers, “called me a RINO – a Republican In Name Only. But I’ve been a Republican for decades. I haven’t changed, but the party has.”

When Brenda attended a Republican Party candidate training session, “They told me to avoid talking about education, because that’s not one of ‘our’ strong points,” he chuckles. “But that’s what won the election for me.”

Brenda is a moderate who blames the far left and the far right for refusing to work together toward solutions. Being a math teacher, he pictures the electorate on a bell curve: “I think most of the people in our country are more toward the middle, and I think most of them would be willing to sit down and compromise on a lot of these issues. But “there can’t be anymore of that ‘do more with less’ the legislature has been demanding of teachers,” he says.

Sean O’Leary, senior policy analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy, points out that part-time legislatures typically attract candidates that have flexible occupations: insurance agents, realtors, other small-business owners. “If you get teachers in there, you’ll have a new perspective,” he says, “a perspective legislatures are not used to seeing.” Only 10 states have some form of full-time or mostly full-time legislatures.  

Back in North Carolina, “State legislatures are making our public schools places for the “have-nots” and not places for everybody,” says Carla Fassbender, a sixth-grade math teacher running for state representative. She blames market-oriented legislators fostering privatization and charter schools, because such schools siphon off students from economically advantaged families, leaving the public schools to educate a growing percentage of at-risk youth.

In Greensboro, a few counties away from Ms. Fassbender’s district, former assistant superintendent Ashton Clemmons piggybacks on Fassbender’s argument, and says it’s part of the reason she’s running for state representative in her own district: “Here in our state, privatization and charter schools are a huge factor,” she says, pointing out that the legislature currently allots between $14 million to $16 million to private schools, “but by 2020 it’s supposed to be $144 million in vouchers going to private schools – and 90 percent of those are religiously based.”

Ms. Clemmons, a mother of three young children, has taught early grades and also been principal of two schools. “If 90 percent of these schools have a religious affiliation, how can we say that we have equal access to education? I believe that we say we’re a state and country that provides opportunity for everyone,” she says. “For me, public schools are the only place where we strive to provide opportunity for all.”

Da’Quan Love, a third-grade teacher and candidate from North Carolina’s Wayne County, laments having to work two jobs. “We are sick and tired of not having adequate resources for our students. We have had enough with politicians who haven’t sat in a classroom since 12th grade make decisions that affect our profession,” he says, adding, “The folks who are on the front lines of supporting our children – the people in those classrooms teaching them – have said, ‘Enough is enough.’ If people like us don’t stand up for our kids, then who else will?”

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