Tired of waiting on politicians to act, educators prepare to run for office

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by Félix Pérez

With only three weeks before the end of this school year, Des Moines, Iowa, middle school teacher librarian Kyrstin Delagardelle Shelley, like educators across America, was trying to catch her breath and stay organized as she sought to meet all the demands, requirements and added stress that accompany this time of year.

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Nevertheless, Delagardelle Shelley found herself in a hotel 700 miles away immersed in a weekend training with two dozen educators from throughout the country motivated — compelled even — by a common goal: prepare for their first run for local elected office.

Every educator who was in Dallas last month for the first-ever “See Educators Run” training, held by the National Education Association and designed specifically for educators, had her or his own reason for being there. For Delagardelle Shelley, it began with the presidential election and came to a head this February, when the Iowa governor and state legislature stripped 184,000 educators, nurses, firefighters and other public service workers of their right to negotiate work conditions collectively.

But regardless of what drove them to run, they share the belief that it’s high time educators be among the elected officials who make policies and pass laws if educator and student concerns are to be heard.

“There are politics involved in every aspect of my students’ lives,” said Memphis, TN, education support professional Loranzo Andrews. The NEA training “positions us so we are not just window shopping, looking at the conversation going on and wishing we were there.”

K. Delagardelle Shelley

Denise Gray wants to put an end to unaccountable charter schools shuttering in the middle of the school year, “dumping” students in neighborhood public schools and walking away with taxpayer funding, no questions asked. The special education paraeducator in Lexington, KY, said, “Our students of color need to see people like them in leadership roles.” A former lawyer interested in running for her county commission and ultimately the state legislature, Gray said, “My students inspired me to become involved politically. You have people making laws about education who have never set foot in the classroom. There is a great need for educators to be at at the table where policy decisions are made.”

The one-and-a-half-day training, the second of which will be in October, walked the educators through the various aspects of a campaign, including fundraising, communicating with voters, running a field program, writing a campaign plan, and policy resources. NEA will provide ongoing services and consultation after the educators launch their campaigns.

Robin Aslakson retired from a rural school district in Fremont, MI, in 2014. Self-described as “socially liberal and fiscally conservative,” Aslakson said she worries about the demise of public education unless more educators run for office. A former elementary school teacher, Aslakson said she understands how difficult it is for educators to find the time to run for office. She cautioned, however, “With the classroom cuts, with pay freezes and with higher health insurance premiums, if teachers don’t step up to the plate, they will find things will go downhill faster and faster.”

Carrie Pugh, NEA director of Campaigns and Elections, said the goal of the training program is to . . .

fill the pipeline with local educators who will be in office for years to come, who are passionate about our issues, who know their students by name and who are attuned to the needs of their communities. Our responsibility is not just to win elections but to elect educators who understand the need to go on offense for their students and for their schools.

Pugh said running for office is a “really big deal” and can be daunting, especially for educators whose life’s mission is helping their students succeed. The NEA candidate training program, said Pugh, is designed to give educators the tools and support they need to succeed at the ballot box and expand the reach of their advocacy for their students and communities

“The first step out of the classroom is the scariest one,” said third-generation teacher Delagardelle Shelley when describing her decision to become a candidate for her local school board. “But if you’re waiting for an engraved invitation, it’s not coming.” She continued, “Last November happened, and I realized it wasn’t just enough for me to be an informed citizen and to try to educate students to become future citizens. I had to be involved more.”

Delagardelle Shelley has indeed put her doubts and fears aside. Her race for a seat on the Des Moines, Iowa, school board is this September. The district, the state’s largest, has more than 34,000 students

Reader Comments

  1. Most educators by virtue of their chosen occupation have the welfare of young people at heart. We need that kind of dedication to the welfare of our young citizens. The best way to get it is to allow people who have successfully worked with students to become involved in policies and activities which will give every young person a chance to lead a successful and involved life.

  2. Prior to my retirement I attended candidate trainings provided by North East Ohio Education Association and Ohio Education Association. I reside in the same district where I taught for twenty-seven years. My brothers and sisters in the Sheffield-Sheffield Lake Teachers’ Association were the backbone of my campaign and my former sixth grade students were very encouraging when I spoke of running for political office. Our locals members believed in me when I stated: “When I retire I am running for our school board.” They offered their help every step of the way, including allowing their children to be pictured on my campaign literature. We decided to focus on attending many of the districts large group events such as youth sporting events and local parades.

    Once elected to our Board of Education I continue to volunteer in the schools and our communities. I feel it is important to work with the groups that you represent. My retirement is filled with meetings, along with the research and development that is based on advocating for our students. I am still working with SSLTA members to educate our communities about the importance of public education. As a lifetime member of NEOEA-R, OEA-R and NEA-R, I continue to attend classes and events to stay updated on education based policies, trends and how to improve working conditions for staff and students.

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