Will Teacher Uprisings Change Democrats?

Jeff Bryant

Anyone wondering whether teacher uprisings this spring will influence party politics and elections in November should look at what’s happened in this year’s primaries so far.

Most prominent among primary contests involving education issues was an improbable win in Kentucky, where a first-time candidate, math teacher R. Travis Brenda, knocked off the state’s House Republican Majority Leader Jonathan Shell.

Brenda had joined with his colleagues earlier this year in staging sickouts that closed schools across the state to protest Kentucky lawmakers’ handling of state public employee pensions and inadequate school funding. Shell “was part of the legislature’s Republican leadership team that crafted and passed pension, tax, and budget bills,” a Louisville news outlet reports.

Elsewhere in the state, of the 16 Kentucky teachers involved in primary contests, seven were victorious and will join with other teacher-candidates who ran unopposed to field 32 candidates in total in November. Nearly all are Democrats.

“The thing to watch is whether this is the start of something broader,” says NPR’s Domenico Montanaro in reporting about Kentucky’s primary races.

Changing on Education

It’s going to be hard to tell where and if teacher uprisings will change electoral politics, especially in states where uprisings have yet to take place. But there are clear signs the dynamics of education politics are changing in the Democratic party, and those changes are taking place at the very same time progressive populist candidates are surging in Democratic primaries across the country. These insurgencies could result not only in a new Democratic party, but also a new vision for education policy in the party.

One of the clearest signs of the changing education politics in the Democratic party was when the Colorado branch of the party told an influential pressure group of charter school proponents, called Democrats for Education Reform, to stop using the word “Democrats” in its name.

The state party approved an amendment to its 2018 platform opposing any attempts to segregate Colorado schools or make public schools private institutions or “private corporations.”

This schism between defenders of the public-school system within the Democratic party and those in the party who don’t care if more school funding is siphoned to privately operated management businesses is becoming more obvious in primary electoral contests.

In Pennsylvania, two longshot candidates for the State House, Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato, who knocked off establishment incumbents in the primaries, based their platforms on a range of progressive issues including opposing “charter schools as a form of ‘privatization’ that drained public resources.”

Their opponents, the brothers Paul and Dom Costa, had both recently voted against legislation to prevent online charters from exploiting failing students and against a bill that would make all charters more accountable for how they spend public funds.

Another Pennsylvania House upset winner in the Democratic primary, Elizabeth Fiedler, campaigned for “a moratorium on new charters and cyber-charters until their effectiveness and long-term costs are evaluated and they are held to the same standards as traditional public schools.” Her party establishment-endorsed opponent, Jonathan Rowan, never made his views on charter schools a prominent message in his campaign.

In Nebraska, Kara Eastman’s surprising defeat of former Rep. Brad Ashford has been heralded as a sign of progressives making inroads into the Democratic party establishment and a worrying sign among Beltway Democrats of a surging left within the party.

Here again, the upstart Eastman called for continued investment in public schools and public-school educators and resistance to those “who advertise the benefits of expanding charter schools.” Her establishment opponent left the issue of charter schools unaddressed.

Wooing Teachers

This is not to say opposition to charter schools has become a progressive rallying cry, in the way that Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, and other issues already have.

In Idaho, for instance, Paulette Jordan’s win is being cast as a progressive plus in a deep red state, where her Democratic party primary contest could have gone to the more mainstream candidate.

Yet Jordan called charter schools “necessary,” while her opponent argued charters “have not lived up to their promise, they have been copycats of one another and they are a great deconsolidation of our school system, competing with traditional schools for funding… The best choice is the traditional public schools.”

Nevertheless, grassroots uprisings created by organized teachers are wooing more Democrats to support public schools. This is a noteworthy trend.

A Cool Embrace

For years, Democrats have not only been cool to embrace organized teachers; they’ve often been downright antagonistic. A sure sign that this relationship may be changing surfaced recently in North Carolina where Democratic Governor Roy Cooper joined teachers in the capital who had walked off the job and closed schools across the state to protest their poor pay and lack of resources in schools due to years of funding cuts.

Seeing an NC governor, of any party, standing with organized teachers during a strike action is unprecedented. The Tar Heel state is one of the most anti-labor states in the nation, not just because of recent Republican majorities in the legislature, but also because the state has been historically resistant to labor organizing regardless of which party is in control.

Cooper has also not always sided with workers. Yet, no former Democratic governor in recent memory – including education champion Jim Hunt – would have locked arms with organized teachers in union to close schools. The fact Cooper did sends an important message about where the Democratic party may be heading.

A Better Deal?

Similarly, in Washington, D.C., Democratic party leaders are pivoting from teacher walkouts across the nation to call for giving states and school districts $50 billion over a decade to fund teacher raises by canceling the recent tax cut for top 1 percent of earners.

The Democrats’ plan, called A Better Deal for Teachers and Students, calls for another $50 billion fund to pay for new school infrastructure.

During the unveiling of the plan, union presidents Lily Eskelsen García of the National Education Association and Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers joined Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on the podium.

The scene prompted longtime Washington Post education journalist Valerie Strauss to recall when Barack Obama’s was president, his education secretary, Arne Duncan, was so unpopular that the NEA called for his resignation.

So given that Democrats, under a Trump administration, have little chance of pushing their proposal through, she questions whether this an example of the party making “nice with the leaders of teachers’ union.”

Whether Strauss’s skepticism is warranted or not, political dynamics in the Democratic party are clearly changing, and teacher uprisings are adding to the volatility of the mix.

If the Democratic wave that’s anticipated for November “won’t crest without progressive insurgents,” as some have observed, then maybe it also won’t crest without a change in how the party addresses education.

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