As classrooms and textbooks crumble from neglect and resources run thin, teachers from both parties are running for office in unprecedented numbers this year in hopes of gaining a political voice in Washington and in statehouses across the country.
More than 300 educators are on ballots, more than double the 2014 and 2016 numbers, in a grassroots movement following strikes that shuttered schools in such states as West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and Colorado.
The movement is cutting across party lines. Democrats are vying to capture seats in GOP-led statehouses that have slashed public education in favor of tax breaks for wealthy corporations. Some Republican educators are campaigning on promises to increase education spending and curb the expansion of charter schools.
After a decade of fiscal austerity, voters and lawmakers from both sides of aisle are seeking to reverse trends that have led to tighter budgets, charter school expansion and pension cuts.
"Education is in crisis. And teachers are held responsible for the poor decisions made by lawmakers," said Jahana Hayes, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year who is vying to be Connecticut's first black Democrat in Congress. "Even though we were never at the table, we're still held accountable."
Republicans who have previously voted against education measures are already paying for it in the primaries. In Oklahoma on Tuesday, six more incumbent Republican state House members were defeated, all of whom voted against a tax hike used to fund teacher pay raises. Of the 19 House Republicans who voted against the tax hike, eight have now been defeated.
In Florida, Andrew Gillum, a progressive who would be the state's first black governor, won the Democratic primary Tuesday. Gillam has supported investing in public education, raising teacher salaries and overhauling standardized testing. He will square off against Republican Ron DeSantis, a conservative congressman who boasts the support of President Donald Trump.
In a major blow to Arizona teachers on Wednesday, the state's Supreme Court blocked a ballot initiative that would have increased taxes on the wealthy to raise money for schools. In the gubernatorial race, David Garcia, a Democrat and an education professor, is running to unseat Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican who has fought against raising taxes despite signing legislation in May to raise teacher pay, ending the Arizona walkout.
Since the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent recession, state tax revenues have largely recovered, but funding for education has not. Many states haven't restored funding for K-12 schools since the Great Recession. The Trump administration's fiscal 2019 budget proposal will cut more than $3 billion from the Education Department, while investing $1.6 billion to support private school vouchers and other school choice programs.
Criticism of the administration's education policy has centered on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a Republican billionaire brought into the administration with no experience as an educator but with a reputation for promoting private and charter schools. She has since steered money away from public schools and has pushed to give families taxpayer money in the form of vouchers to attend private schools.
She has pushed legislation establishing tax credits for scholarships to private schools in Florida. In her home state of Michigan in 2016 her family contributed $1.45 million over two months – an average of $25,000 a day – to Republican lawmakers after the GOP legislature derailed a provision that would provide more oversight in Detroit charter schools.
"I'm unhappy with what the government is doing to public education. But I won't spend time being angry and waiting for someone else to make a change," Connecticut candidate Hayes told CNBC.
A White House official who declined to be named said that the 2019 budget proposal would reduce and eliminate programs that haven't helped students, preserve funding for grants to support low-income and disabled students, and expand school choice. The Education Department did not respond to requests for comment.