Educators on the campaign trail


21 February 2019

The teacher-versus-billionaires battle in the US offers lessons about the power of persistence.

Even before voters went to the polls for the United States’ mid-term elections on
6 November, educators in Oklahoma were winners.

A dozen incumbent Republican legislators who voted against tax increases to fund teacher pay rises found themselves kicked off the ballot paper in a stunning series of primary upsets. Of the 19 state legislators who voted against tax rises, only four survived.

Or as the media outlet Daily Intelligencer put it: “The teachers beat the billionaires in a rout.”

Oklahoma has some of the lowest paid teachers in the US. Over the past decade, US$1 billion (A$1.4 billion) has been slashed from education funding — a 28 per cent cut that incredibly, in the world’s richest nation, has left one in five schools in the state operating four days a week to save money.

This year, the state’s teachers decided enough was enough.

A threatened walkout won them a promised US$6000 ($8500) pay rise over three years but not the tax increases to fund it. So, they walked out anyway and went hard after the fracking industry-backed Republican legislators who had insulted and opposed them.

They were not alone. In the most politicised mid-term elections in recent memory, educators are campaigning and standing for office in unprecedented numbers, backed by their union, the National Education Association (NEA).

Educators now hold nearly 15 per cent of all state legislative seats in the US after 1,080 were elected in state contests.

“What we are witnessing is not a moment but a movement by educators running for office to fight for the public schools our students deserve,” NEA president Lily Eskelsen García said when the figures were released.

Their presence has been felt most in the “red states” of the southern and central US — the run-down, poverty-hit states in which the Republicans have a stranglehold on power and people voted in huge numbers for Donald Trump in 2016.

Angry teachers walk out in six states

This year, teachers walked out for up to two weeks in six states, including Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and West Virginia. Many won long-withheld pay rises but that has done little to assuage their anger.

These states have witnessed years of Tea Party-style government — hard-right, small-government state administrations that have cut funding, attacked union rights and introduced Trojan horse privatisation programs such as charter schools and education vouchers.

In Oklahoma, any tax increase requires a 75 per cent majority. In some states, strikes by public sector workers have been made illegal, so staff instead stage walkouts, some using personal or annual leave to do so.

State governors have been hailed in Washington as conservative trailblazers but back in his home state, voters have not seen the promised economic growth that would swell tax coffers, rather education and health services on the brink of collapse. In effect, they have been the subject of an experiment in Reaganite economics since the 1980s.

As social studies teacher John Waldron from Tulsa in Oklahoma told The New Yorker: “We have gotten to see here pure unalloyed, deep-red conservative government…People say they aren’t interested in politics. But then politics happens to them.”

These are also states in which the Democratic party is on life-support, often not even fielding a full slate of candidates. That too has prompted some educators to step into the breach.

#RedForEd defines the resistance

The NEA has given the resistance movement its own hashtag — #RedForEd. For the first time, it has run a training program, See Educators Run, to train and support members seeking elected office. More than 200 members attended the three-day program, learning about fundraising, communicating on the campaign trail, and the nuts and bolts of running an effective campaign.

Polling for the NEA shows voters firmly on side: 78 per cent of public-school parents support strike action by educators for better pay.

Candidates also found themselves pushing an open door. In 2016, laid-off Oklahoma teacher Mickey Dollens ran for a state seat on a ticket of raising taxes by 0.25 per cent to fund education. Knocking on doors, he explained that it amounted to just $30 a year for most families. He won, in a state that in the same election swung heavily for Trump.

Further west, in Arizona, 270,000 people this year signed a petition to place an “Invest in Education” proposition on the ballot paper, lifting state income taxes from 4.54 per cent to 8 per cent for those earning over US$250,000 ($350,000) to fund teacher pay rises and education services.

The proposition was thrown out on a technicality after a state supreme court challenge by the local chamber of commerce. (The court itself had been stacked by a law change two years prior that allowed the Republican governor to appoint two additional judges.) But a second proposition, rolling back Arizona’s voucher system, made it onto the ballot.

Meanwhile, in Kentucky, House speaker and rising star of the right Jonathan Shell found the limits of power when his part in slashing public servants’ pensions prompted a primary challenge from maths teacher and Republican voter Travis Brenda. Amid fury at the cut — rammed through in a single day — Brenda won and knocked Shell off the ticket, then went on to win the seat.

NEA political director Carrie Pugh says: “In many cases, educators are running after seeing years of legislative neglect and the chronic underfunding of public education. [They] are now demanding more for their students.

“They are taking matters into their own hands and running for office. They are ready to step up for their students, their communities and public education.”

In short

  • In the US, the majority of public-school parents support strike action by educators for better pay.
  • Teachers have walked out in six US states this year.
  • More teachers have been running as candidates.

By Nic Barnard

This article first appeared in the Australian Educator Summer 2018.