Top 5 wins for education activists at the ballot box in 2017

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by Félix Pérez; photo courtesy of Mads Johansen

In the age of Betsy DeVos and like-minded political officials, it can be daunting for public education advocates to find wins at the ballot box. But 2017 had its share of highlights. Here is our list, by no means exhaustive.

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No. 5: Election season got off to a rousing start in September when Ankeny, IA, middle school teacher librarian Kyrstin Delargardelle Shelley, a fist-time candidate, won a seat on the Des Moines school board by 1.17 percentage points. Propelled by a volunteer network of educators, parents, the labor community and local and state elected officials, Delagardelle Shelley won an at-large seat on the seven-member school board, Iowa’s largest.

The third-generation educator was a member of the first class of a training program launched by the National Education Association, See Educators Run, which prepares educators running for local office. “I’ve learned that, like most educators, I could do more than I thought I could handle.”

Three other educators who participated in the See Educators Run program won their first-time bids for office: two in New Jersey and one in Iowa. Balvir Singh was elected freeholder in Burlington, NJ, and Heather Flaim, a Republican, was elected in November to the township committee in Franklin Township, NJ. In Marshalltown, IA, Susan Koening Cahill won a seat on the city council with 70 percent of the vote.

No. 4: In Douglas County, CO, educators helped four anti-voucher candidates win local school board seats in an extremely expensive race last month. Americans for Prosperity, a from group created and funded by the Koch brothers, dumped more than $100,000 into the race in support of pro-voucher candidates. The outcome of the election puts the brakes on plans to use public dollars to pay for tuition at private schools.

The Douglas County School Board voted this month, 6-0, to end its private-school voucher program and directed the school district to end a long-running legal battle that reached the nation’s highest court. “Public funds should not be diverted to private schools, which are not accountable to the public,” said board member Krista Holtzmann.

In Aurora County, CO, four educator-supported candidates, out of a field of nine, won local school board seats. Among them is a recently retired educator.

In Jersey City, NJ, educators made the difference in local school board races last month. Educators supported candidates who won three of the four open seats on the city’s Board of Education. They beat a slate of candidates backed by the city’s mayor. In the first election following the return of local control to the district, the educator-supported candidates are seen as an important step in reinvigorating local control. “In an atmosphere of increased educational profiteering and decreased school funding, we need board members who can work in a cooperative and cohesive manner,” said Jersey City Education Association President Ron Greco.

No. 3: Virginia educators Cheryl Turpin, District 85, and Schuyler Van Velkenburg, District 72, won their contests for the state House of Delegates. The two were part of a stunning turnaround in which Democrats, who started election night 34 seats down, stand on the cusp of taking control of the House of Delegates. Four Delegate elections remain contested and are currently being decided by the courts, leaving the chamber split 51 Republicans to 49 Democrats. A tie-breaking vote, if necessary, would be cast by the lieutenant governor, a Democrat.

No. 2: Karen Gaddis retired from teaching in 2011. Over her 40-year teaching career in Oklahoma, she taught classes ranging from seventh-grade math to AP calculus. But for Gaddis, there was one thing that just didn’t add up: How the state legislature could short public education funding year after year while handing out tax breaks to corporate giants in the gas and oil industries. Many of Oklahoma’s school districts have shifted to four-day school weeks and have unprecedented numbers of emergency-certified teachers. Oklahoma ranks 49th in the nation in teacher pay, and educators have left in droves for other states.

Gaddis ran for office to give educators a voice in the legislature, winning a special election in July with 52 percent of the vote. “One of the things I have been telling everyone is that in education you learn very quickly that it doesn’t really matter who gets credit for the job, it’s getting the job done that important,” Gaddis told Ed Votes.

No. 1: Election Day 2017 saw education champions make significant gains at the top of the ticket. In the Virginia governor’s race, the most closely watched in the nation, education champion and medical doctor Ralph Northam was the victor. Northam, whom educators supported overwhelmingly, bested Ed Gillespie, who supports private school vouchers and charter schools, as well as policies backed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Northam won the race handily by 9 points, 54 percent to 45 percent..

“Dr. Ralph Northam is the right person to lead our state as the 73rd governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. This is a tremendous victory for Virginia children and all who care about our public schools. Dr. Northam will seize this opportunity to strengthen our Commonwealth’s public schools and expand opportunities for our students,” said Virginia Education Association President Jim Livingston.

In the election for New Jersey governor, Democrat and former U.S. Ambassador Phil Murphy beat out the state’s current Republican lieutenant governor, Republican Kim Guadagno, a proponent of charter schools. Murphy bested Guadagno 56 percent to 42 percent.

“From last October, when our members made an unprecedented early endorsement in the gubernatorial election, until the closing minutes of the election, our members showed that they are willing and able to stand up for what they believe in,” New Jersey Education Association President Marie Blistan said. “I could not be prouder of the effort that we made on behalf of all of our endorsed candidates. By working tirelessly for over a year to elect Phil Murphy, we have guaranteed a new direction for New Jersey after eight years of failed leadership.”

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