A bipartisan rallying cry: Teachers hit the campaign trail to demand public education reform

In this image taken with a fisheye lens, Stephanie Rolf, center, a teacher in the Douglas County, Colo., school system, leads a cheer during a teacher rally Thursday, April 26, 2018, in Denver.
David Zalubowski | AP

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.

National Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes (C) has a hard time controlling her excitement after taking the stage with U.S. President Barack Obama (2nd R), Education Secretary John King (R) and her fellow state teachers of the year during a White House ceremony on May 3, 2016. 
Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images

Wisconsin's state school superintendent, Democrat Tony Evers, isn't waiting either. As his party's nominee for governor, he is taking on Scott Walker, the Republican incumbent who has been instrumental in restricting the bargaining power of public employees, including teachers. In his stump speech, Evers accused Walker of "gutting our public schools, insulting our hard-working educators, and destroying higher education in Wisconsin."

Walker transformed his once progressive state, with a long history of labor activism, into a hotbed of conservatism and controversy. In 2011, he eliminated collective bargaining rights from most public employees and forced them to contribute more to their retirement and health insurance. This sparked outrage over what many saw as another move by Republicans to silence organized labor.

Walker also cut property taxes at the expense of school funding, justifying the law as a cost-saving measure following the Great Recession. The law slashed $800 million in funding to schools, among the deepest cuts to education in any state.

In response, some conservative cities and towns have voted to hike their own property taxes to make up the shortfall.

In Minnesota, Rep. Tim Walz, a former teacher who narrowly won the Democratic nomination for governor, is promising to protect bargaining rights and encourage union organization. He wants to reform the Bush 43 administration's No Child Left Behind law, calling it "deeply flawed."

No Child Left Behind had passed with bipartisan support in 2001. It introduced high-stakes standardized testing to gauge students, with the goal of making every student proficient in those subjects by 2014. But critics argue that it encourages an overemphasis on standardized testing and leads to unfair evaluations of K-12 educators.

Over time, more schools failed to keep up to such high standards and faced sanctions, including closings. In 2015, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which rolled back some components of the law, but frustrations still linger.

Charter schools are a target

The ongoing debate over the role of charter schools has been brought into sharper focus in many campaigns being fought by educators.

Supporters of charter schools argue that forcing low performing public schools to compete for public funding will pressure them to improve. But opponents argue charter schools have siphoned money away from public education and contributed to underfunding in some districts.

The backlash even includes some Republican teachers who are challenging members of their own party as first-time candidates. That has upended some traditionally GOP-led education initiatives, including local tax freezes and charter school expansion.

Republican Scott Lewis, a school superintendent in rural Hartford, Kentucky, is vowing to protect public education in his bid for a seat in Kentucky's State House. Lewis said he'd consider raising taxes to fund schools and would oppose charter school expansion.

Kentucky has seen a wave of educators join this fall's election campaign following a statewide strike in April that saw the GOP-led legislature override the Republican Gov. Matt Bevin's veto of a plan to increase spending.

Travis Brenda, a high school math teacher at Rockcastle County High School in Mount Vernon, Kentucky, narrowly upset state House Majority Floor Leader Jonathan Shell in the state's GOP primary in May, despite Shell's endorsement from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

I know it's said that Republicans usually want to cut spending, and Democrats want to raise taxes. But there's a happy medium somewhere. This is a bipartisan issue. People need to come together.
Travis Brenda
Republican candidate for Kentucky's House of Representatives

"I know it's said that Republicans usually want to cut spending, and Democrats want to raise taxes. But there's a happy medium somewhere," Brenda said. "This is a bipartisan issue. People need to come together."

Brenda also opposes charter schools, saying they have failed to live up to their promises to serve lower income students.

"Charter schools just help the people that already have money. And they take money away from the public schools that are already suffering from budget cuts," he said.

Pension cuts

Budget cuts since the recession have also cut deeply into pension benefits for many public employees, including public school teachers.

Public pension systems nationwide face record levels of debt, totaling $1.4 trillion, according to a recent Pew Charitable Trusts study. As lawmakers try to close the funding gap, retirement programs and wages are under increased pressure.

Pensions cuts were at the heart of the April protest in Kentucky, when thousands of outraged teachers took to the Capitol to protest a surprise pension overhaul. Despite Kentucky's approval of increased school student spending, the pension changes still remain.

That's prompted many teacher candidates to fight back against legislatures that have diverted funds from pensions.

Paying out of pocket

Tight budgets have whittled away at school days, with thousands of districts across the country cramming classes into four-day weeks, despite widespread agreement among educators that students need more instruction time for a better education.

In Pennsylvania, school funding has emerged as a key issue in the governor's race between incumbent Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf and his GOP challenger Scott Wagner. Wagner said he would seek to drive $1 billion in new funding to help schools. More than a dozen districts across Pennsylvania are severely underfunded, according to Equity First, an organization focused on school funding in the state.

In many cases, the financial burden is falling on teachers forced to spend out of pocket on classroom supplies. A federal Department of Education survey found that 94 percent of public school teachers in the United States pay for supplies without reimbursement in the school year that straddled 2014 and 2015.

Public school teachers and their supporters protest against a pension reform bill at the Kentucky State Capitol on April 2, 2018, in Frankfort, Kentucky. The teachers are calling for higher wages and demanding that Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin veto a bill that overhauls their pension plan. 
Bill Pugliano | Getty Images

Devon Skeens, who taught government in two different Baltimore City charter schools, said he walked in on his first day to an empty classroom; no textbooks, pencils, or markers. Besides the "Eisenhower era" desks, he said he bought everything himself, which averaged to $100 per week and amounted to thousands of dollars over the course of the school year.

"I was more than willing to spend money on my students. If I didn't, no one would," he said. "It's just the expectation."

But the frustration over out of pocket spending, Skeens said, is a smaller component to a systemic problem in which school teachers are treated with little respect.

"Teachers are tired of being de-professionalized and treated like they're dispensable. They've been picking up the slack for government institutions who are pushing the tab on teachers so they can balance their own budget," he said.

Skeens eventually left the profession, fed up, he said, with the indignities of public school teaching and dismayed by the lack of progress in public education.

Advocating for the profession

It remains to be seen how many educators will prevail in this fall's election. Of the 41 educators running for the Kentucky legislature this year, 20 had contested primaries and 12 of them won. In Oklahoma, 71 of 112 teachers were victorious in their primaries in June.

Outcomes of teacher protests across the country have been mixed: In West Virginia teachers won a pay raise. In Arizona, teachers ended their walkout after the governor signed an education funding bill into law. And in Colorado, protests results were mixed, but the Colorado Education Association said its legislative agenda largely succeeded.

Other states weren't so successful. Kentucky teachers were ultimately unable to reverse changes to their pension plans. In Oklahoma, lawmakers didn't budge after nine days of protests.

Oklahoma teachers took to the campaign trail following walkouts, with nearly 100 public teachers on the ballot in the state's primary elections.

"The people that are cutting public education funding, they ran on these ideas. And now they're implementing them. It's no surprise teachers are up in arms," Skeens said.

Some educators argue that the only people in office who can truly advocate for teachers are teachers themselves. The goal, they say, is to elect more pro-public educators to office nationwide.

"If the government is truly about the people we serve, then educators have the best insight into what the people need," Hayes said. "People always talk about how much they respect teachers as people, and it makes me laugh, because when it comes to talking about teaching as a profession, there's a shift. But we're educated and skilled – part of our challenge is that we haven't advocated for our profession."