- From the Editorial BoardMoving from the School House to the State House
In January 2019, several educators1 will be starting new positions. No, they will not be changing content areas or grade levels or schools. Instead, they will be starting their political careers as local elected officials, state and federal representatives, and even two governors, Tony Evers of Wisconsin and Tim Walz of Minnesota. Current, former, and retired teachers, along with several other school personnel, ran in local, state, and federal political races with varying degrees of success. Why did so many educators decide to leave classrooms and schools to run for political office in 2018? Relatedly, what benefits and drawbacks might result from experienced educator participation in the legislature?
Reports about educators running for office have mainly focused on the sheer number of individuals who participated in political races, estimating that nearly 1,500 educators participated in the 2018 midterm elections (Gonzalez, 2018; Russo, 2018). Few reports, however, have discussed why educators—and teachers in particular-decided to run for office. The main motivating factor seemed to have been education spending, or the lack thereof (Will, 2018). Education funding took a major hit after the 2008 economic recession; to date, 29 states are still providing less funding per pupil than they provided ten years ago, negatively impacting schools (Leachman, Masterson, & Figueroa, 2017). Stagnant education funding means teacher salaries have not kept up with inflation, resulting in many teachers taking second jobs or leaving the profession altogether. Low pay has also deterred new teachers from entering the classroom; as a result, several states have been plagued by teacher shortages, resulting in overcrowded schools and sometimes underqualified or underprepared teachers in classrooms (Brill & McCartney, 2008; Sutcher, Darling-Hammond & Carber-Thomas, 2016). Additionally, because of stagnant education funding, teachers have had to do more with less, independently filling their classrooms with necessary supplies and often working with outdated curricular materials in technologically obsolete classrooms (Chokshi, 2018; Walker, 2018). These strains in K-12 education have fueled what one news source has called the "teacher revolt" (McGreal, 2018). Teachers are now "fed up" with their current working conditions and the lack of professional respect for teachers (Cline, 2018; Reilly, 2018; Wong, 2018).
Some education reporters speculate these strains have led to the increase in teacher participation in overt political activism2. In the spring of 2018, mass teacher walkouts occurred in Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. Central issues driving these protests included inadequate education funding and [End Page 95] quality and poor teacher pay3. Despite the impact of the walkouts, media attention, and increased awareness among the general public of the condition of public education, teachers in these states felt their efforts had middling effect (Cline, 2018; Hui, 2018; McGreal, 2018; Reilly, 2018; Wong, 2018). For example, while teachers in West Virginia received a 5% salary increase, they did not get the improved healthcare benefits they sought. Similarly, Oklahoma teachers were guaranteed a pay increase for the upcoming school year, but their demands for increased funding for schools were not met. This move was particularly disheartening for these teachers because years of budget cuts in Oklahoma has led to a 25% reduction in per pupil expenditure from 10 years ago (Leachman et al., 2017). Likewise, in North Carolina, teachers who wore #RedForEd and marched to the state capital felt as though their efforts for increased school funding were ignored by the current state legislators. This prompted the rallying cry, "Remember, remember, we vote in November" when their pleas for increased education funding did not materialize after their march on the state capital (Hui, 2018). News reporters have speculated that this lackluster response to teacher demands may have prompted numerous educators to run for elected office, most notably for state legislative positions (Cline, 2018; Gonzalez, 2018; McGreal, 2018; Newburger, 2018)4.
Two of the walkout states not only had several educators run for political office, but many of these educators won state legislative seats. The most remarkable wins for state legislature occurred in Arizona and Oklahoma. In Arizona, 36 educators were on the general election ballot and 16 won seats (Camera, 2018). Likewise, Oklahoma...