GOP teachers launch statehouse bids to demand more school funding
This year’s unrest among red-state teachers unhappy with cuts to school funding and low pay has produced a mini-wave of GOP legislative candidates on the November ballot who insist they’re ready to stand up to their fellow Republicans on education issues.
About 40 Republicans have joined the mostly Democratic “educator spring” — the hundreds of current and retired teachers, professors and school administrators running for office, following walkouts and protests last spring that halted school in red states like Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kentucky and Arizona.
GOP candidates cite many of the same concerns as their Democratic peers: reduced state spending on education, dismal teacher salaries and unease about the future of America’s schools. And they say they’ll rebuke Republican governors and lawmakers to obtain the education support they want. Many of the contenders new to politics are even teachers union members, the traditional province of the Democratic Party.
One is Becki Maldonado, an English teacher and Oklahoma legislative candidate who proudly wears her American Federation of Teachers pin when she knocks on doors. She’s gotten used to the surprised looks when she tells voters she’s a Republican.
Don’t “judge a book by its cover,” says Maldonado. “As a Republican, I kind of think outside the box.”
The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, estimates that the roughly 40 Republicans are among the approximately 550 current or retired educators from both parties running for state legislative seats this fall.
Teachers unions are longtime donors and political power brokers within the Democratic Party, and the party often claims education as a defining issue. But these GOP candidates have gone so far as to take advantage of teachers union campaign training, which is open to members of both parties.
Maldonado said she decided to run for a state Senate seat on the first day of Oklahoma’s teacher walkout, after she met with legislators and didn’t think they could relate to what she described. She said she’s taught in a school where her classroom had 36 students — and not enough desks. A priority if elected, she said, would be to help the state come up with alternative sources of revenue beyond oil and gas taxes.
“I really realized that they were not aware of what the common people of Oklahoma were going through and their needs,” Maldonado said of state legislators.
Similarly, Scott Lewis, the superintendent of schools in Ohio County, Kentucky, said his motivation to run as a Republican in a state House seat in his western Kentucky district was the passage of legislation signed by Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, that watered down retirement benefits for starting teachers. The move help stir teacher walkouts across the state, with educators chanting, “We’ll remember in November” on the Capitol grounds in Frankfort.
With starting teaching salaries in his district around $36,000, Lewis said it’s already tough to recruit quality applicants. He’s also fed up that his district is getting nothing from the state for textbooks and professional development — not to mention his frustration with the negative rhetoric he says is too often directed at teachers.
Lewis said on education issues, he differs some from the mainstream views of the Republican Party. He also opposes charter schools, for example. But Lewis said he opposes abortion rights, and otherwise has views in line with much of the Republican Party.
“We need to treat teachers like professionals and not just like they’re not important, which is what I think they feel like,” Lewis said. “I think it’s time we stood up for public education.”
Chris Ackerley is a Republican math teacher and state legislative candidate in Arizona who previously served a term in the state legislature before losing his seat in 2016. He said the “RedforEd” movement in his home state brought about positive changes in school funding. But he’s dismayed that the result seems to be partisan bickering.
Ackerley said a big challenge ahead is ensuring that the state keeps its promise to increase teacher salaries and fund career and technical education programs.
But Ackerley, a member of the Arizona Education Association teachers union, acknowledged that beyond education, he doesn’t really agree with a lot of the union’s positions.
“Once you start going off going into other areas we don’t see eye to eye,” he said. Tax policy is one, he said.
Vera Miller, a Republican music teacher running for a House seat in West Virginia, said her experience as a teacher makes her “absolutely different” than most Republicans, in part, because she considers herself a moderate with “middle-of-the-road” views that have been shaped by working with children.
“I don’t live in a bubble. I see the real world around me. I see hungry children,” Miller said. “Really, the only ticket a lot of our children have in West Virginia is a good education, so I’m a supporter of public education.”
The Democrats seeking office have had a higher profile. That includes Jahana Hayes of Connecticut, a first-time candidate for Congress who was named National Teacher of the Year in 2016.
Rep. Tim Walz, a Democrat running for governor in Minnesota, also worked as a teacher, as did Tony Evers, the Wisconsin superintendent of public instruction taking on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, (D-Mass.) who is running for a second term, worked as an elementary school teacher and law professor.
Seizing on the trend, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee sent out an August memo showcasing its candidates, titled “Teachers and state Democrats are taking Republicans back to school.”
But there are Republican teachers in office, too. State Rep. Steve Harshman, the Republican speaker of the House in Wyoming, is a teacher and coach — and NEA member. Rep. Virginia Foxx, (R-N.C.), the chairwoman of the House education committee, was a community college administrator and school board member.
Travis Brenda, a Republican math teacher in Kentucky, already succeeded in pulling off a big political upset this campaign season. In the state’s May primary, he unseated Jonathan Shell, the state’s GOP House majority leader.
Recognizing the momentum for educators in general, the NEA organized training sessions in four cities that were attended by current and potential teacher candidates from both parties.
Carrie Pugh, the NEA’s political director, said Republican and Democratic candidates had similar questions during the training, which was open to all members, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that Republicans attended. Many of the offices the educators seek are local and nonpartisan, she said.
“Our members reflect where they reside,” Pugh said.
A big concern for the candidates is finding the time to manage a campaign in between school demands, she said. Another is whether they’ll be able to manage or even keep their jobs, given the time demands if they are elected. The sessions help the teachers with public speaking, making campaign plans and setting policy priorities.
“How to structure your campaign works the same way, whether you are Republican, Democrat or Independent,” said Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association.
Priest said the union’s membership in Oklahoma is about half Republican and half Democratic and the union welcomes Republican educators — especially given that Republicans hold a supermajority in both state legislative chambers.
Chris Jankowski, a political consultant who is the former president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, which works to elect Republicans to state offices, said while there’s no shortage of teachers who are Republican, typically those who run are liberal Democrats.
Jankowski said the GOP suffers from an image of not being quite as strong on education as Democrats, but Republican teachers carry credibility that can help them compete for support from Democratic and independent voters.
“It’s a really positive trend and our party should be on the lookout for candidates,” Jankowski said.
As Toni Hasenbeck, a Republican middle school teacher from rural Elgin, Okla., campaigns after school in the evenings, she says voters often tell her when it comes to education spending, they want more transparency and more assurances that legislators will be good stewards of the money.
“That’s exactly how I feel. It’s a big responsibility,” Hasenbeck said. “I’ve always been for paying teachers more and spending more on education. I wish in Oklahoma, we would spend our money like those things were a priority.”