Photo: Kentucky teachers rally inside the state Capitol for education funding. AP Photo/Bryan Woolston
By Amanda Menas
Public school advocates will remember the election of 2019 as one in which their voices were heard—loud and clear. Stunning victories in Kentucky and Virginia are being celebrated not only in those states, but nationwide.
Educators undeniably played a role in those wins. Kentucky governor-elect Andy Beshear put it best: “To our educators, this is your victory.”
Here are the lessons from the 2019 elections that public school advocates can carry into 2020:
1. Public education carried the day
Kentucky Governor-elect Andy Beshear and Lt. Governor-elect Jacqueline Coleman pulled off a stinging defeat of Gov. Matt Bevin, who had the strong backing of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the president himself.
Bevin’s disdain for teachers and the union reached a fever pitch this spring when his administration issued subpoenas to school districts to find out which teachers called in sick in order to rally at the state capitol. It was Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear who jumped in to defend teachers’ Constitutional rights to protest.
Beshear pledged during his gubernatorial campaign to champion public schools and treat educators with the respect they deserve. He chose as his running mate Jacqueline Coleman, a classroom teacher from Harrodsburg, Ky.
Beshear went on the record with the Louisville Courier Journal with his intention to push back on “Bevin’s draconian education policies, inspired by wealthy elites like the Koch Brothers and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.” He continued, “[Bevin’s] solutions involve implementing the American Legislative Exchange Council’s carefully orchestrated schemes to underfund and undermine Kentucky’s public schools, turn our ‘persistently low-achieving’ schools over to outside operators and drastically cut teacher compensation and benefits.”
Educators’ message was clear: Our students and educators deserve better than Matt Bevin. Voters ultimately agreed.
Education was a main factor in another stunning turnaround: Virginia voters toppled the GOP’s longtime control of their state legislature. Taking both the state House and Senate for the first time in 24 years, Democrats fought for school funding and teacher salaries, which had stagnated in that time.
For years, Virginia has ranked near the top of the list of wealthiest states in the nation, but ranks a sad 42nd in per-pupil state funding and 34th in teacher pay. Voters decided they had had enough, and removed from office those preventing the state from doing far better for its public school students and educators.
2. Educators are a force in elections
In 2018, Kentucky educators and parents from around the state made a promise.
“We’ll remember! Come November!” thousands chanted in front of the capitol in Frankfort. They were rallying for increased school funding and drastic cuts to teacher pensions.
One year later, Kentucky educators unseated Matt Bevin. Their protests reminded voters how Bevin expanded vouchers, defunded schools, and bullied educators. Educators and parents worked hard to make that win possible, turning out in droves after months of canvassing neighborhoods and working the phones.
Virginia educators made a similar promise. In recent years, parents, students, and educators made it clear that they would not accept the status quo, showing up by the thousands at the state capitol to hold their legislators accountable this January. Since then, educators have walked door to door, made phone calls, and dedicated their scant free time during evenings and weekends to help carry pro-public education candidates over the finish line.
3. Educators and NEA make waves in 2020
These victories “demonstrates the power of educators and how the #RedforEd movement is reshaping the political landscape,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “Educators are empowered and engaged like never before, and they made their presence felt in this election,” she said.
Across red states and blue states alike, educators and parents have been coming together to advocate on behalf of students and our neighborhood public schools, and volunteered on campaigns in unprecedented numbers. Grassroots #RedForEd movements from California to Virginia have organized parents, students, and educators to advocate for and win billions of dollars in increased funding for public schools.
NEA has supported these initiatives by providing expertise in digital communications, logistics, member mobilization, research, and legislative strategy. This backing will help channel the enthusiasm of nearly 3 million NEA members and other public school supporters, who are excited to elect champions for our public education in 2020.
Everyone is invited to join NEA’s Strong Public Schools campaign to elect pro-public education candidates. Take the first step in promising to vote by signing our Strong Public Schools EducationVoter pledge!