By Amanda Litvinov
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Ask NEA’s most engaged activists from the 2012 election cycle what motivated them to dedicate countless hours to phone banking, canvassing and registering voters, and all of their answers revolve around a common theme: Because there’s so much at stake for public education in every election, and educators are in the best position to stand up for students and schools.
“Everything that happens in our classrooms has to go through a political cycle or decision,” said Jaim Luna Foster, an educator with 13 years’ experience who now serves as president of the Arlington Education Association in Virginia.
“If we’re not involved in that process or if our association is not involved in that process, then lawmakers who generally have no classroom experience can do whatever they want to education.”
Foster was one of the tens of thousands of NEA educators who reached out to voters to talk about the importance of supporting pro-public education candidates. Their hard work paid off with many big wins for public education and working families. But now that Election 2012 has come and gone, these same activists say this is no time to disengage.
“Now educators need to work with the leaders that were elected at the local, state and national levels to present our vision for schools,” said Josh Brown, who teaches global studies at Goodrell Middle School in Des Moines, Iowa.
Before the November elections, Brown called hundreds of fellow educators—574, to be exact—to talk about the importance of their participation in the election, and not only at the federal level.
“At the state level it was vital that Iowa was able to keep a Democratic majority in the state Senate to prevent some of the hurtful so-called ‘reforms’ from becoming a reality in Iowa,” said Brown.
“In order for our work to mean something, we need to be able to talk to our elected leaders about what is occurring at the local level in our schools and how various policies are impacting our students and classrooms.”
Because educators are among the most trusted voices in their communities, their stories resonate with citizens and lawmakers alike.
Foster experienced that connection first-hand when he canvassed in neighboring Prince William County in the final weeks before the election.
“I knocked on the doors of several Latino families who said they were undecided, and myself being a Latino, I engaged them in conversation about why I supported President Obama’s re-election, because he stands for immigration reform and the DREAM Act, and he stands up for public education for all,” said Foster.
“They didn’t outright change their minds, but I think I connected with them in sharing my experience. It made me hopeful that maybe they would come around after hearing that.”
Foster already has an upcoming school board election and a more distant governor’s race on his radar—but elections are just a part of the work of an educator-activist, he said. In the meantime, he plans to talk to state lawmakers about why anti-workers’ rights legislation hurts students and working families along with educators.
“We have to show up and make sure we’re having those critical conversations with decision makers,” he said.
John Jackson, a professor of organic chemistry from Ohio, says clearly why educators in his state must stay engaged: to replace Gov. John Kasich with a pro-public education, pro-worker governor who will support students and educators.
In fact, it was Kasich’s Senate Bill 5, which aimed to strip collective bargaining rights from public sector employees in Ohio, that first inspired Jackson to become politically active.
“That was a turning point,” Jackson recalled. “It was the first time my government had done anything that affected me so personally. It was the first time my government had attacked me! All of a sudden, I was a parasite, a free-loader, I was all those things they were saying about lazy public-sector employees.”
After citizen-activists, including thousands of Ohio Education Association members, had done their part, voters overturned SB5 at the polls.
“Once you start, once you break that ‘activation barrier,’ it gets easier,” said Jackson, who volunteered for an astonishing 51 neighborhood canvasses before the November elections.
“Sure, you can say you’re too busy, and people are busy. But the question is, what are you willing to sacrifice?”
Retired Virginia educators Rick and Gail Baumgartner said educators and students have been forced to make far too many sacrifices, in large part because of legislation that demands high stakes tests.
“That’s one of the reasons I’m not working part-time again this year,” said Rick, who has held many positions in his association and served as Fairfax County Education Association president for five years.
The breaking point came one afternoon last year, as he proctored a state exam for an elementary class.
“They started at nine in the morning, and these nine-year-old children were still taking this test at two thirty,” he said. “They’re not sitting for their medical boards, these are third graders who are taking a math test. To me, what’s happened with testing is what I call state-sanctioned child abuse.”
There was no question that the Baumgartners would take an active role in getting voters to the polls with public education issues in mind. They knocked on doors in August and September, and beginning in October hosted phone banks in their home every Wednesday and Saturday. The final weekend before the election, 2,000 calls were made from their home.
But like all the super-activists we spoke to, Rick and Gail know that educators must be involved not only in the process of electing pro-public education candidates, but in the process of forming education policy.
“If you’re going to sit by the wayside while laws are being passed, you’re going to be getting exactly what you’ve asked for, which is nothing.”
Mary Ellen Flannery contributed to this report.