by Félix Pérez; image courtesy of Joe Shlabotnik
With 45 days left until Election Day, education has surfaced as a top tier issue in state legislative and gubernatorial races across the country.
Whether it’s an outgrowth of the #RedForEd movement that began this spring with a nine-day, statewide school walkout in West Virginia that spread to Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and Colorado. Or the collective frustration of educators and parents fed up with cut after cut in education funding and educator salaries since the Great Recession (more than half of states provide less total school funding per student than they did in 2008 during the Great Recession, estimated the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities). Or the record number of educators running for political office for the first time, from school boards to Congress. Or, most plausibly, a combination of all those factors. Whatever the reason(s), public education has been propelled to the top on the political trail.
In its September 13 issue, Time magazine ran a story titled “Education Is a Top Issue in the Midterms.” It read, “All across America, public anger over education funding has scrambled the political map for November. The activism that started with this spring’s sudden wave of teacher strikes and walkouts didn’t ebb when the picket lines did. It got channeled into political action.” The surge in education-related activism is not exclusively on the Democratic side of the ledger, either. In a state GOP primary in Kentucky, states the article, “a high school math teacher came out of nowhere in May to defeat the state house majority leader, who had proposed a bill to cut teacher pensions.”
According to an analysis by the National Education Association, an unprecedented 554 educators are on the ballot this fall, “set to unleash a historic #RedForEdWave in state houses across the country.”
Lily Eskelsen García, president of NEA and a former elementary school teacher in Utah, put the phenomenon into context:
What we are witnessing is not a moment but a movement by educators running for office to fight for the public schools our students deserve. Now, in the wake of historic walkouts and school actions, we have a chance to leave our mark and elect to office public education champions who will raise their voices and fight for our students and public education. This is our time. This is our movement. We are going to ride this #RedForEdWave straight to the ballot box in November.
The intrepid educators run the gamut. They include Tim Walz, a Congressman running for Minnesota governor; Jahanna Hayes, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year poised to become Connecticut’s newest member of Congress; Tony Evers, a former state school superintendent looking to unseat Scott Walker; David Garcia, Arizona gubernatorial candidate; Lynn Walz, Nebraska lieutenant governor candidate; and Rita Hart, a candidate for lieutenant governor in Iowa. Down-ballot educator candidates include the superintendent of public instruction for Arizona, David Shapira; the Idaho superintendent of public instruction, Cindy Wilson; the Minnesota state auditor candidate, Julie Blaha; and the New Mexico land commissioner candidate, Stephanie Garcia Richard.
It’s others such as Jen Aniano, a high school English teacher in Michigan. A first-time candidate, she is campaigning to represent House District 46 in the state legislature.” Said Aniano, “I am tired of how undervalued education is in Michigan. I am tired of our own Betsy DeVos and her horrific agenda that has decimated and dismantled public education in the state of Michigan. A change is necessary. A change is coming. I want to lead the change.”
Education has become such a prominent issue that even elected officials who have long track records of enacting deep cuts to education funding and undermining educators are trying to claim they support publication. Perhaps the most egregious case in point is in Wisconsin Gov. Walker. Walker has run ads proclaiming himself “the education governor.” The facts clearly say otherwise. Walker bashed teachers and their unions weeks into his tenure. He cut state support for public schools. Walker championed the law, Act 10, that eliminated most public employees’ collective bargaining rights and required them to pay more into their pensions and health insurance premiums.
Walker’s attempt to recast himself smells of desperation in a race in which he has consistently trailed. Whatever the outcome of the race, however, educators across the nation running for office are saying loud and clear they want to restore and defend public education.