What Teacher Walkouts Changed in Our Politics

Jeff Bryant

Even before the votes from the recent midterm elections were completely counted  – a process that took nearly two weeks in many races – numerous prominent news outlets were quick to report on the supposed failure of the “education wave,” those school teachers and other educators who ran for office up and down ballots across the country. One report that received particularly widespread circulation, by Associated Press, carried the headline “Tough lessons: Teachers fall short in midterm races.” Another for U.S. News & World Report said, “Poor Marks for Teachers in Midterms.” Clever, huh.

Indeed, numerous news outlets seemed eager to reinforce a narrative that despite an unprecedented number of teachers and public school advocates running for political office, “underwhelming voter interest in education” and a “red wall” of Republican opposition were just too much to overcome.

An exception to this shallow reporting was a piece by The Guardian that reported “teachers made huge gains in the midterm elections.”

But the article quotes union leaders in walkout states Oklahoma and Arizona, as well as president of national American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten, even though unions did not lead the teacher walkouts.

To get a better sense of the real impact teacher walkouts had on the midterms, I called on frontline organizers and public-school advocates in states where there was substantial documentation that education would have a big impact on election results. What I found was overwhelming consensus that yes, teacher walkouts this spring had a significant impact on the midterm elections and will continue to reverberate in politics and policy making.

Inspiring Women to Run

In West Virginia, where teachers started the wave of walkouts that rippled across the country, “the teachers strike woke up countless women voters to both run for office and support other women doing the same,” says Gary Zuckett.

Zuckett is the Executive Director of West Virginia Citizen Action Group, a grassroots progressive advocacy that canvassed and phone-banked to elect a slate of candidates who support public schools, environmental protections, affordable healthcare, and other progressive issues.

Zuckett believes the statewide teacher walkouts in the Mountain State inspired a group of first-time candidates, mostly women, to join with other progressive women incumbents to form a unified slate they call Mountain Mamas to press for their issues . Seven of these women candidates won their races, two of whom are women of color won.

Zuckett also attributes the defeats of two powerful Republican lawmakers – Robert Karnes, the vice-chair of the Senate Education Committee who lost in the primary, and Joe Statler, the vice chair in the House who lost in the general election – to their vocal opposition to the teacher walkouts.

Because of the teachers’ labor actions, “lawmakers no longer take elections for granted,” Zuckett says, “and our current governor has already floated the idea to bump teachers’ pay again in the next legislative session.”

Upsetting the Establishment

In Kentucky, the next state after West Virginia to experience teacher walkouts, “Republican incumbents got a lot of opposition they had never seen before, much of it coming from teachers who ran pro-public school campaigns,” Chris Brady tells me. Brady is a second term school board member in Jefferson County, which includes Louisville, who has managed to defeat big-money candidates backed by conservative Republicans two elections in a row.

Brady points to the victory of special education teacher Tina Bojanowski, who unseated two-term Republican incumbent Phil Moffett, as a sign the teacher walkouts mattered in November. At least 10 current or former teachers who ran for office in 2018 won.

“The number of educators now elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives is 14. Half of them are Republicans and half are Democrats,” Gay Adelmann tells me. Adelmann is a public school parent in Louisville and current president of Save Our Schools Kentucky. She recently ran for state Senate in the Democratic Party, losing in the primary with 44 percent of the vote as a first-time candidate with little funding.

Grassroots public school activists animated by teacher walkouts earlier this year, “specifically targeted” legislators who voted against public schools, she tells me. While many of those incumbents won anyway, some prominent lawmakers fell, including the sitting House Majority Leader who lost in the Republican primary to a high school math teacher.

Overcoming Gerrymandered Districts

In Oklahoma, the next state to experience mass teacher walkouts, “this spring’s teacher uprising poured a Blue Wave directly into a glass half full for educators,” writes retired teacher John Thompson for The Progressive magazine.

“Though Democratic gubernatorial candidate Drew Edmondson’s loss to Republican newcomer Kevin Stitt prompted Oklahoma press to dub the November election a “disappointment” for teachers, the story is more complicated,” argues Thompson.

As evidence for the impact of the teacher walkouts, Thompson points to the big jump in the state legislature’s Education Caucus – “growing from nine members to 25 or 26 – and a “near-tripling of the caucus” if legislators who are former educators or who got their starts as education advocates are included in the count.

Thompson points to gerrymandered districts, “where it would seem impossible to elect a Democrat,” that swung blue due in part to education advocacy, including a “Republican stronghold in Oklahoma City,” where four progressive Democratic women won, including a surprising win for Democrat Kendra Horn over incumbent Republican and Steve Russell for a seat in the U.S. House.

“It’s clear that the teacher resistance contributed to a bipartisan sea change in Oklahoma governance, Thompson concludes.

Running Competitive Races

In Arizona, where teachers inspired by their colleagues in other red states walked out of school en masse, “the #RedforEd movement had an enormous impact on the elections,” says Beth Lewis.

Lewis helped form and currently leads Save Our School Arizona, a grassroots organization of teachers, parents, retired educators, and public-school advocates that successfully pushed a referendum onto the ballot, Proposition 305, that let Arizona voters decide the fate of a bill passed in the state legislature that would expand a school voucher program statewide. The defeat of Prop 305 in the November election was a huge win for public schools.

“Because of the grassroots organizing of teachers, parents, and citizens around the state,” says Lewis, “we defeated Proposition by 65 percent and elected Kathy Hoffman, a speech-language pathologist who walked out as part of the #RedforEd movement, to be our State Superintendent.”

While most educators who ran for office in the state lost, there were exceptions that can be credited to the success of teacher activism. In a huge upset, second-time Democratic candidate Jennifer Pawlik, a former elementary school teacher, prevailed in legislative district that had never gone blue, in its current configuration. She calls her victory a product of a “perfect storm” that included coalition-building in her district and the teach walkouts that called voters’ attention to the crisis in Arizona schools.

Many of the educators who lost came excruciatingly close, including Christine Marsh, the 2016 Arizona teacher of the year, who lost her race by only 267 votes. Marsh, a first-time candidate who lost to a well-established Republican incumbent in a district carried by Donald Trump in 2016, had little funding and admits, “It wasn’t easy, teaching full-time and running for office.”

Raising Education Issues Everywhere

What’s also under-appreciated about the impact of teacher walkouts in midterm elections is their influence in states that did not experience walkouts.

In Wisconsin, for instance, education was a top factor, second only to healthcare, in defeating [incumbent Republican Governor] Scott Walker,” says Robert Kraig. Kraig is Executive Director Citizen Action of Wisconsin, a grassroot organization that campaigned hard for Walker’s successful challenger, longtime state school superintendent Tony Evers who called out Walker for his horrible track record on funding education.

“The highly visible strikes emboldened educators and public-school supporters in a way that benefited candidates running on increasing investments in public schools,” says Kraig. The teacher uprisings “also took the issue away from Republicans” when Walker tried to run as an “education candidate” but couldn’t run away from the massive cuts he’d enacted to the system.

Overall, it’s very difficult if not impossible to calculate the real impact teacher activism had in the midterms – especially in states where teachers didn’t walk out – and reports on the power of teacher activism will rely mostly on anecdotes.

One quantitative measure that’s frequently mentioned is a tally of candidates currently employed as teachers from Education Week which shows that of the 177 who filed to run for state legislative seats, “only one-quarter of those ended up winning.”

While that certainly sounds like a poor record, what was the percent of wins for any other occupation running for office in the midterms? Further, when there is a surge of first-time candidates associated with an emerging, grassroots movement not funded by corporate PACs and powerful political groups, what would normally be considered a good showing?

To write off the impact of teachers and education advocates on elections with all-too-clever headlines is slipshod reporting that sells short not only the intelligence of voters but also the power of democracy.

 

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