After an ‘Educator Spring,’ Teachers Storm Elections

Jeff Bryant

For Progressives, the stunning upset victory by first-time congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over a prominent incumbent candidate in New York seems to be a sign that a wave of change coming in the midterm elections. But a perhaps bigger, clearer sign of change is the groundswell of educators entering political contests.

As an outcome of the wave of teacher walkouts and protests that swept through West Virginia, Oklahoma, North Carolina and other states – a chain of events increasingly referred to as an “Educator Spring” – “angry educators are flooding down-ballot races,” Politico reports.

The number of educator candidates is staggering, with nearly 300 coming from just the American Federation of Teachers union alone. Many of them are winning – and not just as Democrats.

By taking their cause to the streets and then to the ballot box, teachers have made education a top election issue – not just in states, like North Carolina, where walkouts occurred – but also in states, like Florida, where they didn’t.

It’s an electoral phenomenon that is little understood, much less reported.

An Angry Wave of Teachers

The specific issues teachers call attention to vary from state to state, district to district, and even school to school.

In West Virginia, poor teacher pay and the state’s dysfunctional employee health insurance program brought teachers to the state capital. In Kentucky, the triggers were unpopular revisions to public employee pensions and the general lack of funding. In Arizona, teachers objected to years of under-funding while the state splurged on school vouchers and charter schools. In Oklahoma, teachers protested against low pay and the lack of a permanent way to increase school funding.

In North Carolina, the list of teacher grievances was long and varied – from unmanageable class sizes to inadequate funding to stressed out work schedules. But for the vast majority of teachers I spoke to at the rally in Raleigh, the economic trigger was the lack of funding across the board. Many believed fixing the funding was the top priority from which so many other issues could then be resolved.

The teachers’ actions brought to light to many who weren’t aware that education funding has not recovered from the Great Recession, and the majority of states fund schools less now than they did in 2008, and teacher salaries have been mostly flat or down since the 1990s.

But there was also a larger context that brought teachers out into the streets.

The Roots of Discontent

“Not since the battles over school desegregation has the debate about public education been so intense and polarized,” writes education reporter Michelle McNeil for Education Week.

Similarly, education journalist and author of The Teacher Wars Dana Goldstein notes that education matters that were once considered settled among policy wonks and Beltway think tanks are now points of strong contention. Her conclusion was that these differences represent a “deep divide” on school reform.

However, the comments from McNeil and Goldstein aren’t from this year. They’re from 2013.

Indeed, this year’s teacher actions arose from a deep well of long simmering discontent in the education community.

This was summed up best by North Carolina teacher Courtney Brown who told me teachers were out en masse because, “We hope people listen to us.”

It’s no secret that recent education policies from federal and state levels are generally mandated without the input of educators, especially rank and file teachers. Neither No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top had strong support of on-the-ground educators, and most policies in politically conservative states either disregard teachers or are downright hostile to them.

The latest example of the disconnect between education policy and the daily realities of teachers’ lives was made evident in reports of the failure of yet another “education reform.”

Recalling Barack Obama’s 2012 State of the Union declaring “bad teachers” as “the problem” behind stagnant learning outcomes, Matt Barnum reports that the idea of designing teacher evaluation systems to reward or penalize teachers based on how their students performed on standardized tests became all the rage after years of advocacy for these systems by rightwing think tanks and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Experienced educators warned this idea was completely unworkable and based on “junk science.” “Now,” Barnum reports, “new research … finds scant evidence that those changes accomplished what they were meant to: improve teacher quality or boost student learning.”

The billion dollar effort, with $575 million coming from Gates, was not only “wasteful” but “damaging,” Bloomberg reports.

Well, DUH, teachers everywhere are saying.

‘Stop. Help. I Can’t Deal with This.’

This disconnect between what a teacher’s-eye view of education sees and what policy makers decide is not new.

In 2015, during a hearing by the Committee on Health, Labor, Education and Pensions on the subject of “Fixing No Child Left Behind,” Rhode Island’s Senator Sheldon Whitehouse observed, “My experience in the education world is that there are really two worlds in it. One is the world of contracts and consultants and academics and experts and plenty of officials at the federal, state, and local level. And the other is a world of school principals and classroom teachers who are actually providing education to students. What I’m hearing from my principals’ and teachers’ world is that the footprint of that first world has become way too big in their lives to the point where it’s inhibiting their ability to do the jobs they’re entrusted to do.”

Whitehouse urged his colleagues, “We have to be very careful that the people who we really trust to do education – the people who are in the classroom – are not looking back at us and saying, ‘Stop. Help. I can’t deal with this.’”

In calling attention to their lousy pay and lack of job security; the aging, dilapidated buildings they work in; the crumbling, the outdated textbooks they give to students; the lack of basic supplies they must buy with their own money; the scarcity of school support staff including counselors, nurses, and librarians; the competition from charter schools and vouchers that siphon funding out of the system, and an education agenda that values testing students over educating them, teachers are pointing to the overwhelming reality on the ground that public schools and the basic right to an education are increasingly imperiled.

If political leaders don’t care about that, then it looks like there are teachers who will run against them and maybe kick their butts out of office.

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