By Amanda Menas
Educators across the country have been working tirelessly to keep public education a top priority issue in local and national elections in 2020. After more than a decade of deep education cuts and lagging teacher salaries, signs of a renewed commitment to public schools are evident in recent election outcomes.
Even when the coronavirus pandemic closed school buildings nationwide, educators were there to support students, says NEA President Lily Eskelsen García.
“Educators and education support professionals make a difference in the lives of millions of students every day in schools and [on] college campuses across the country, and their work and impact extend far beyond the boundaries of the classroom,” says Eskelsen García. “Never have all of our nation’s educators been more appreciated and seen—even as they work with students from a distance.”
Data from a new nationwide poll, conducted on behalf of NEA, shows 9 in 10 parents and guardians expressed extremely positive views of educators.
Now more than ever, educators are a trusted voice in their communities. When they run for office or recommend candidates who will advocate for public schools, voters take notice. Here are eight states where educators and educator-backed candidates won elections with the ongoing help of dedicated NEA members.
In an atmosphere where charters and high-stakes testing have proliferated, gaining an ally on the State Board of Education is an important step forward to protecting public schools. In the high priority state race, Lisa Escárcega, the former head of the Colorado Association of School Executives, won a seat with 72 percent of the vote. The candidate, who was recommended by the Colorado Education Association, says her priorities during her term include breaking down barriers to the profession by increasing teacher pay, providing more funds for paraeducators, and funding better equipped classrooms.
All of the statewide candidates recommended by the Montana Federation of Public Employees (MFPE) won across Montana. MFPE endorsed Shane Morigeau, a state representative, because of his advocacy for educators. Morigeau won the Democratic primary against Mike Winsor, a former special assistant attorney general for the state auditor office. In the race to succeed Gov. Steve Bullock, MFPE endorsed Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney as he prepares to face Republican Greg Gianforte this November after each won their primaries. Gianforte’s potential election would be disastrous to educators and public employees in Montana. Additionally, Ralph Graybill won his race to become the Democratic Attorney General nominee. State attorneys general, often called “the people’s lawyer,” help protect taxpayers’ investment in public education.
A handful of MFPE members ran for seats in the state legislature, both Democrats and Republicans. Four out of five members running in contested primaries won. These include Democrats Jasmine Taylor (HD-22 in Great Falls), Mary Ann Dunwell (HD-84 in E. Helena), Loni Conley (HD-96 in Missoula), and Shannon O’Brien (SD-46 in Missoula). Overall, 13 of 19 MFPE recommended legislative candidates won their primaries.
Gov. Steve Bullock won the Democratic primary in the race for U.S. Senator. A longtime champion for public education, Bullock was recommended by both the NEA Fund and MFPE. Kathleen Williams, also recommended by NEA Fund and MFPE, won the at-large congressional primary.
Despite significant election administration issues in Nevada–with voters lined up late into the night to cast their ballots–Nevada State Education Association members and staff running for office won. The process of voting during the coronavirus pandemic was especially challenging in Clark County, but recommended candidates Natha Anderson and Lisa Guzman won by huge margins. Anderson, Washoe County Education Association President, won the Democratic primary in Assembly District 30 by a margin of 60.19% to 39.81. Guzman, Executive Director of NEA–Southern Nevada, beat her closest competitor in the election for Clark County School Trustee for District A by about 10 points.
COVID-19 has hit New Mexico incredibly hard. Allies pushed to make voting easier for New Mexicans by sending every voter a ballot and increasing the number of in-person early voting locations and one-stop voting centers.
First-grade teacher Billie Thurman-Helean won the primary in House District 57. Thurman-Helean is an alum of See Educators Run, NEA’s candidate training program. Other key victories included Pam Cordova, a retired high school teacher. Cordova, who taught for over 25 years, challenged Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee Chair, Clemente Sanchez for a state Senate seat. Sanchez has been a constant impediment to economic and social justice legislation. Experienced educator Neomi Martinez-Parra also defeated an incumbent, beating Jon Arthur Smith in a state senate primary.
NEA Fund-recommended candidates Congresswomen Xochitl Torres Small and Deb Haaland also won their primaries.
A number of NEA Fund-recommended allies of public education won their primaries in New York, including Representative Jerry Nadler and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes who, in her first re-election campaign, held off her well-funded, corporate-backed challenger 72.9% to 19.7%.
In Oklahoma, Medicaid expansion passed with 50.5 percent of the vote. The expansion is a major victory that will directly improve the lives of many NEA members and their families, including making coverage available to the dependents of many educators. In all, about 200,000 Oklahomans stand to benefit.
The Utah Education Association recommended Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, an ally of public education, in the Republican Gubernatorial primary. In a tightly contested race, Cox defeated two anti-public education candidates – including former governor and ambassador Jon Huntsman, who had a record of supporting a flat tax and vouchers.
The danger to public health and democracy posed by the rulings of the Wisconsin Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court at the beginning of the pandemic were devastating. Thousands of voters were forced to wait in line and risk exposure to COVID-19. However, WEAC and allies in the Wisconsin labor movement won big in a critical state supreme court race when Judge Jill Karofsky defeated a Scott Walker-appointed, Trump-endorsed candidate. Her victory is a significant step toward justice for working families, public education, and democracy in Wisconsin.