More than 500 educators are currently on the campaign trail leading up to midterm showdowns from Alaska to Maine that have transfixed the nation. Educator candidacies together with the drama surrounding this year’s #RedForEd protests against the neglect in state K-12 education budgets has produced a wave of political activism unlike the nation has seen in modern times.
Staff members with the Maine Education Association (MEA) have been working with members, community stakeholders, and other partner groups across the state to help them engage in local campaigns.
“Members are putting up yard signs, participating in phone banks, attending meetings with the candidates, and talking with their fellow educators about which candidates will best support our schools, students, and the profession,” says MEA Executive Director Rob Walker.
“The excitement around having candidates who are members has created a people’s movement and a huge sense of pride among educators,” says Robin Courrier, a teacher at Bridges Community School in Mankato and member of Education Minnesota (EM). “Members are speaking to the value of providing students with a solid education and to the importance of voting for people who understand the importance of funding our education system.”
So far, EM can claim about 2,000 volunteers who attend get-out-the-vote rallies, write letters to media editors, are active on Facebook, and who can be relied on to show up at the polls on November 6.
“Members are volunteering to assist with phone banks, parade walks, and door-knocking,” says Courrier, who has been teaching for 35 years. “We’ve had a record number of members express in a substantive way which candidates they support.”
Members of the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) are getting out the vote “with an unprecedented level of engagement,” says WEAC President Ron Martin. “It’s an excitement that is new and different, even surpassing our activism in recent governor and recall elections.”
Member Activists Rising to the Occasion
Wisconsin, Maine, and Minnesota are part of a movement following the educator-driven #RedForEd effort that has created a surge in political activism in Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and North Dakota, where members of North Dakota United (NDU) have endorsed Sen Heidi Heitkamp and Rep. Mac Schneider.
“Our members are absolutely dialed into this election,” says Nick Archuleta, NDU president. “Members have marched in parades, are knocking on doors, donating money, and taking shifts on phone banks in efforts to elect Heidi and Mac.”
Archuleta says many of NDU’s 11,500 members are voting early and encouraging their colleagues to do the same.
“From these efforts, NDU is identifying Member Activists upon whom we can call to take specific actions on behalf of our members during the upcoming legislative session,” he says. “Our members are dedicated to doing everything they can to ensure our endorsed candidates prevail.”
Without pro-public education champions like Heidi Heitkamp and Mac Schneider, the ideas expressed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos “will actually become law,” Archuleta warns.
“DeVos’ proposals that would reduce federal funding, divert public monies to private and for-profit schools, and allow federal funds to be used to buy guns for teachers are not good for students, teachers, or the communities we serve,” he says. “Our activism and our votes can make the difference.”
Professor Lydia Tackett, an NDU member from Fargo, says there has been an increase in activism across the state, particularly when canvassing in neighborhoods.
“There seems to be more door-knocking among members,” says Tackett, a science professor at North Dakota State University. “You can have a real conversation with your neighbors, who in my experience are interested in a candidate but haven’t really made up their minds.”
“Whitmer Wednesdays” are a weekly event across Michigan, says Paula Herbart, president of the Michigan Education Association, which has endorsed Gretchen Whitmer for governor.
“There is phone-banking, texting, letter-writing, social media engagement … all out of MEA’s central office and satellite offices across the state,” Herbart says.
MEA has also endorsed Sen. Debbie Stabenow in her re-election campaign.
“She has been a champion for education for years,” Herbart says. “We have no greater ally in Washington, D.C.”
By supporting pro-education candidates like Tony Evers for governor and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, WEAC members and volunteers are helping bring education issues to the forefront.
“The best thing we have going for us is that the public finally understands how their families, schools and communities are impacted by self-serving politicians and policies that hurt public schools and the middle class,” says Martin. “With 80 percent of voters saying they want funding restored to their neighborhood public schools, Wisconsinites know they have to go to the polls or risk four more years of bad leadership.”
In Minnesota, Courrier beams with pride when talking about Representative Tim Walz who is running for governor.
“He’s out of Mankato Teachers’ Association (MTA), Local 7158,” says Courrier, MTA president. Same goes for Julie Blaha, a strong contender for state auditor.
“She was secretary treasurer of the AFL-CIO out of Anoka Hennepin, Education Minnesota!”
The excitement of electing “one of our own” has translated into no-nonsense organizing in Minnesota, which includes naming Worksite Action Leaders in every local.
“This creates opportunities for us to coordinate visits from the candidates and introduce them to members and the community,” says Courrier, a member of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), AFL-CIO, and NEA board of directors.
Education Minnesota is also endorsing the candidacies of U.S. Sens. Amy Klobucher and Tina Smith.
Making Friends and Cherishing Allies
Last January, the Montana Public Employees Association and the Montana Educators Association-Montana Federation of Teachers merged to form Montana’s largest union, with an estimated membership of more than 24,000.
“Try to imagine this reality,” says Montana State Representative Amanda Curtis, a biology teacher at Butte High School and member of the Butte Teachers Union. “One in 40 Montanans is a member of the Montana Federation of Public Employees (MFPE)!”
Because Montana is a merged state, says Curtis, “we partner arm-in-arm with private sector and trades union activists all over Montana to build and leverage our power.”
As a public employee union, MFPE members support candidates who are “public service-friendly.”
“We have boots on the ground knocking doors, making phone calls, writing letters to the editor, organizing fundraisers and town halls, and spearheading grassroots campaign activity such as rallies and demonstrations, in every community across this huge state,” says Curtis, a member of the NEA board of directors.
Last spring, MFPE interviewed all 130-plus legislative candidates before endorsing Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. Kathleen Williams, among others.
Also sparking a surge in activism among MFPE members are two ballot issues: The 6-Mill Levy and Tobacco Tax. NEA along with other MFPE partners are pushing both measures, especially the 6-Mill tax, which funds 10 percent of Montana’s university system.
The Association has combined its member organizing program with that of the AFL-CIO. While still separate organizations, MFPE member-to-member mailers, door-knocking efforts, and “call nights,” are orchestrated jointly. Members are kept abreast of the latest news via the MFPE Facebook page.
“It’s important to have candidates who listen,” says NDU’s Tackett. “Likewise, it’s critical to have members who listen when they knock on doors. I don’t feel like I’m trying to sell people on something. They do their homework and will make up their minds. I’m a resource, and with repeated contact we will develop trust and understanding.”
Tackett says she will visit fellow NDU members and neighbors three or four more times before the midterms.
“You have to follow-up,” she says. “I really do enjoy talking with them.”
by John Rosales