By Amanda Litvinov / Photo of Arizona Education Association activists by Joshua Galemore.
As results from election 2020 came in, it was clear that public schools were entering a new era of possibility. This was an outcome educators worked hard for, not only during the election cycle, but over years of organizing within their communities.
Educators knew it was critical to elect a new president, one who values public education and will partner with educators to expand opportunity for all students—Black, brown, and white, no matter where they live or their family’s income—dismantle systemic racism, and reopen schools safely. That mission was accomplished when Joe Biden and Kamala Harris flipped Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Georgia on the way to earning the greatest number of votes of any presidential ticket in history.
There were scores of other races for local, state, and federal office that educators understood to be critical for public education, and so, poured their time and energy into winning.
The wins were huge. In the U.S. Senate, educators helped defeat two unfriendly incumbents by electing Mark Kelly in Arizona and John Hickenlooper in Colorado. They also helped to reelect public education champions Gary Peters in Michigan and Tina Smith of Minnesota against strong opposition. They also helped protect the pro-public education majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Of the 3,125 candidates that NEA state affiliates recommended in state and local races, 2,187 won, with some results still outstanding. The list of wins includes 295 affiliate-recommended Republican candidates.
On top of that, more than 120 NEA members ran and won.
“Over the course of the most consequential elections in our lifetime, candidates had their say and the voters had theirs,” said NEA President Becky Pringle. “Voters ushered in pro-public education and pro-working families agendas, with unprecedented NEA activism leading the way.”
More than 230,000 NEA members volunteered to take election-related action in 2020, a nearly 50 percent increase over 2016.
Many of these electoral victories share this in common: They were achieved in places where educators have earned community trust by taking a stand for students.
#RedForEd marches on
Nowhere was the power of educator organizing more visible than in Arizona, where #RedForEd activism delivered the state for the Biden-Harris ticket; flipped a U.S. Senate seat by electing friend of public education Mark Kelly; and won approval of Proposition 208 to restore $1 billion in critical funding for K-12 schools, lower class sizes, and address teacher shortages.
Educators worked through the pandemic to help collect 436,000 signatures to get the measure on the ballot.
“One of the most important things we learned from the educator walkout of 2018 was how to tell our story, to have meaningful conversations about why we need to invest in education,” says Jay Barbuto, a 7th– and 8th–grade English teacher from Phoenix who serves as co-president of the Phoenix Elementary Classroom Teachers Association.
Millions witnessed the historic 6-day walkout in the spring of 2018, when more than 75,000 educators and allies flooded the streets of Phoenix wearing crimson shirts to demand that the governor and legislators reverse a decade of devastating education cuts. But far fewer people realized how much organizing educators had done at the local level prior to the massive protest.
“Before we walked out, we walked in,” says Marisol Garcia, vice president of the Arizona Education Association and a former middle school teacher. “All the educators would gather across the street from their schools to talk to the community about what we’re fighting for.” More than 110,000 people checked in at the final round of walk-ins.
“Then we had local school boards pass resolutions of support for the Red for Ed movement,” Garcia explains. “Once we had the school boards supporting us, we had the superintendents supporting us. Growing the movement at the local level meant we truly had broad support, and the trust of the community we needed in the 2020 elections.”
Powerful, pivotal conversations
NEA ran a sophisticated voter-contact program in 15 battleground states, targeting both NEA members and other voters with a focus on moderates, independents, and Democrats who don’t consistently cast a ballot.
That work included the Battleground Summer program, NEA’s largest-ever member-to-voter effort to educate the public about education issues and encourage them to make a voting plan. In just two months, a cadre of roughly 300 trained educators in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin had 222,400 conversations with voters that resulted in about 30,000 vote-by-mail ballot requests—work that had a significant impact given how close the race was in some of those states.
“It was powerful to talk to voters who were still undecided and know that what you say could be pivotal in their decision,” says Amy Mizialko, president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association.
Milwaukee educators were also deeply engaged in community organizing with longtime partner Voces de la Frontera, an organization that works to protect and expand civil rights and workers’ rights. The group’s dynamic student arm, Youth Empowered in the Struggle (YES), fueled much of the activism.
YES members organized phone banks in April, at the start of the pandemic, speaking to voters in English and Spanish about a critical referendum in Milwaukee that promised $1.6 billion in funding to address disparities in staffing and programs in their local schools. It passed by a 76 percent margin.
“The students carried the momentum of that win through November,” says Mizialko, whose members serve as YES advisors. In the final month before the election, students canvassed five days a week to engage in socially distanced conversations with voters, averaging 1,000 doors each outing.
“Winning Wisconsin didn’t just happen in 2020,” Mizialko says. “It took years of working in coalition with partners, families, and parents, and listening to students themselves.”
Member turnout, investments, and activism helped achieve important wins like these in election 2020:
Local and State Races
- Pro-public education allies in Michigan will now hold a 4-3 majority in the state Supreme Court.
- NEA recommended Shemia Fagen for Secretary of State in Oregon. Her win will be crucial to fair redistricting in the state.
- In Pennsylvania, Attorney General Josh Shapiro was reelected, along with Treasurer Joe Torsella.
- More than 120 NEA members ran for office and won.
- Elected pro-public education U.S. Senators, including Senator-elect Mark Kelly (D-AZ), Senator-elect John Hickenlooper (D-CO), defeating two incumbents.
- Reelected Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) and Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) despite strong opposition. Sen. Jahana Hayes (D-CT), former National Teacher of the Year, was also reelected.
- Protected the pro-public education majority in the U.S. House.
- Arizona voters approved Prop 208, a historic measure to tax the state’s highest income-earners. The measure will restore more than $1 billion in state funding for students and schools after a decade of cuts to public education. Fueled by the state’s #RedForEd activism, the approved ballot measure will help address the teacher shortage and lower class sizes, and adds teacher mentoring and retention programs as well as career and technical education options.
- State taxes on tobacco and nicotine products in Colorado will now fund public education and universal pre-school programs, thanks to voters’ support of Proposition EE.
- Around 15 percent of the Florida Education Association’s education support professionals will benefit from the passage of Amendment 2, which increases the minimum wage to $15 per hour.
- Residents in Louisiana passed Amendment 5 to end special-negotiated local tax breaks that allow large oil and gas corporations to siphon millions of dollars from public schools and other essential services.
- Maryland voters approved Question 1, which enables the state legislature to have more power in allocating funding for public education and other essential services.