By Cynthia McCabe
Ohio high school teacher Courtney Johnson admits it. She didn’t realize how much elections mattered until this year.
The high school English teacher learned that lesson as she watched her state’s newly elected conservative legislature and governor wage a coordinated war on public school educators and other public workers. Her and her colleagues’ rights as workers and the funding they needed to do their jobs were suddenly just chips in a political game for conservatives.
Johnson got mad. And then she got active.
Since January, she has lobbied state lawmakers about the damage they are wreaking in their public schools with legislation targeting public workers’ right to collectively bargain and a $3 billion cut in education spending, as the newly elected conservative governor proposed. One week she was flying to Washington, D.C., to testify before the U.S. Congress about workers’ rights, another week she was knocking on doors, collecting hundreds of signatures on a petition to overturn devastating legislation.
Johnson wasn’t born a political activist. Energetic and committed, yes. But it took the past year to help her see that defending public education doesn’t start and stop in the voting booth on Election Day. She realized she needed to get active long before that.
“In the last year, I have just become obsessed with getting the right people in office,” says Johnson.
For Johnson and for you and your students and families, elections matter. Your ongoing involvement in them matters even more. Need proof? Let’s take a look at what’s happened to public educators’ and other public workers’ rights since the November 2010 election:
- Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker takes office and immediately launches big-business-funded assault on the rights of educators and other public workers. (With the help of the state senate and general assembly, which also flipped from Democratic to Republican control.) Walker’s tactics were so drastic and unfair that even some fellow Republican governors publicly differed with his union-bashing measures. In June, Walker signed into law a budget cutting $800 million in education funding. That was on the heels of an earlier law that gutted collective bargaining rights. Emboldened by Walker’s actions, conservative governors across the country launch similar attacks targeting public workers.
- New Florida Governor Rick Scott quickly passes legislation that ties teacher pay to student test scores, denies educators even minimal pay raises unless they accept weakened collective bargaining agreements, and begins mass educator layoffs. His state budget signed this spring contained an eight-percent cut to per-student funding. More than 3,000 teachers received layoff notices in just three counties. Scott cut public university expenses by $140 million, leading to a 15-percent tuition increase at one state university and the loss of 50 faculty positions at another.
- Ohio Gov. John Kasich, also newly elected, follows his Wisconsin and Florida counterparts by ramming through Senate Bill 5, which drastically undercuts the rights of the state’s educators and public servants. It is so loathed by the state’s citizens that 714,000 sign petitions and successfully land it on this November’s ballot for an overturn vote. The governor refuses federal stimulus funds, leading to a nearly 12-percent decrease in 2012 public school funding and a roughly 5-percent drop in 2013.
- Alabama’s state legislature in December rescinds the right of public school educators and other workers to deduct union dues from their paychecks, dramatically threatening the viability of unions in the state. In New Hampshire, lawmakers pass a measure giving public employers the right to arbitrarily implement work conditions once a collective bargaining agreement expires. State legislatures in Tennessee, Texas, Idaho, North Carolina, New Jersey, and elsewhere launch their own attacks on the rights of workers, education funding and the role of quality educators in the classroom.
“Those elected last November who opposed public education and public workers launched an immediate and coordinated attack and we can’t afford to see that happen again this year,” said NEA Political Director Karen M. White. “There’s too much at stake for educators to sit this one out. Our passion for creating great public schools for all students means we must get involved in this fight. We have to do more than just show up on Election Day.”
Your students need you to be involved in this fight for public education. The working conditions that you campaign for are their learning conditions. When the Idaho state school superintendent wanted to replace educators with laptops this past year, many of Idaho’s public education activists focused on the real outrage — that students would be so shortchanged under the plan.
“The attacks on teachers are bad, but the fact that my students miss out on a well-rounded, engaging education is worse,” says Massachusetts elementary teacher Rebecca Cusick, who has written letters to the editor of local papers, worked for candidates, signed petitions and emailed and called Congress to voice her opinion that, “All kids deserve better!”
Draw a circle around Nov. 6, 2012. You have one year to make a difference in the lives of your public school students, their families and your own. We’ll show you how, in three steps.
It sounds simple, but with this first, important step of signing the Standing Strong petition, you’re showing that you’re not willing to let the anti-public education candidates elected last year have the last word. You’ll be committing to standing strong for students, educators, and public schools.
For the more than 85,000 people who have already signed the Standing Strong petition that means pledging to fight efforts in every state that undermine collective bargaining, weaken support for working families, and strengthen the grip of powerful corporate interests. They’ve committed to working to elect candidates at the local, state, and national level in 2012, who will stand strong for public schools.
By signing the petition you’ll also be among the first to hear about rallies and other events in your state and to learn about opportunities for volunteerism.
STEP 2: USE NEA’S LEGISLATIVE ACTION CENTER TO REMIND ELECTED LEADERS THAT THEY GOT THERE THANKS TO VOTERS
You’re powerful — because you live and vote in your legislator’s district, and it’s his or her job to represent you. At NEA’s online Legislative Action Center you can communicate directly with your members of Congress on the issues that make a difference in your classroom. You can get tips for writing your legislators and writing letters to the editor of your local newspaper, and learn the ten golden rules of lobbying a legislator.
You can also become a regular, active participant in policymaking by signing up to become a cyber-lobbyist. As a cyber-lobbyist, you’ll get NEA’s weekly EdInsider email, alerting you to urgent calls to action on behalf of public education. In the past year, NEA’s cyber-lobbyists have played a crucial role in saving 300,000 educators’ jobs when Congress was about to slash funding, and in putting a stop to damaging voucher legislation that would have unfairly siphoned money from public schools.
“There is a direct link between holding elected lawmakers accountable for their actions and ensuring that quality, pro-public education candidates seek office each year,” said Mary Kusler, NEA’s manager of federal advocacy. “They need to know that we are watching and want them making policy that is right for our students and our public school educators.”
STEP 3: BECOME A CAMPAIGN VOLUNTEER
You’ve signed the petition, lobbied your elected officials, and started a GO page to raise money for pro-public education candidates. Now what? One of the most important roles you can play in the upcoming year is that of volunteer for a candidate who supports the work you are doing and who wants to protect the middle class. Educators are a trusted voice in the community and voters need to hear from you about which candidates truly support public schools.
Volunteers may be asked to phonebank or to knock on doors to educate people about candidates. They hang doortags for recommended candidates, mobilize colleagues and friends to attend rallies, and remind folks to vote on Election Day. NEA members have played a crucial role in past campaigns as volunteers and that will never be more necessary than in the year ahead. Sign up to volunteer on EducationVotes.org.
Need proof that your activism matters? In the past two years, NEA activists played a key role in saving 300,000 educators’ jobs (some of them their own!) when they lobbied, called and wrote Congress. Activists in Wisconsin helped defeat two conservative, anti-worker members of the state senate in recall elections there. In Ohio, they gathered more than 1 million signatures to land the unpopular Senate Bill 5 on the ballot this fall. And in Missouri, NEA activists fought back nearly every piece of anti-worker, anti-public school legislation offered by state lawmakers. The phone calls, the door knocking, the emails? They matter!
We know it can seem daunting to take these steps. The first door knocked on, or the first phone call to a Congressional office, is the hardest. Take it from Courtney Johnson. She’s been there.
“There’s a lot of fear. One of the things the other side likes to say is that the public school teachers are afraid of change. It’s not that we’re afraid of change, but we are afraid of the terrible decisions being made at the state and national level.”
Her personal political activism goal for the months leading up to the 2012 elections? “I want to flip that statehouse,” Johnson says of her now anti-worker, conservative-dominated Ohio statehouse, her voice sounding more determined than ever.
What’s your election-year goal? It matters.
Want to learn more? Keep an eye on your mailbox for the fall issue of NEA Today magazine for more coverage of NEA member activism this election season.