Melissa Provenzano, an educator in Oklahoma, celebrates her House District 79 win during the Democratic watch party held at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame on Nov. 6 in Tulsa, Okla.
—Brandi Simons for Education Week
Sand Springs, Okla.
In the first big election since teachers across the country walked out of their classrooms this spring, dozens of current teachers claimed state legislative seats—joining the policymaking bodies that greatly influence pay and funding for schools.
It was the culmination of months, if not years, of activism and advocacy for many of these educators, and yet the victory wasn’t clear-cut. While 42 teachers won, nearly 80 teachers—or two-thirds of those on the ballot—lost their legislative bids in Tuesday’s midterm elections, according to an Education Week analysis. And gubernatorial candidates who pushed for pumping more money into public schools were also defeated in Oklahoma and Arizona, leaving teachers there reeling.
“It could have cohered into a clear story—a wave story—but in fact, it’s more of a patchwork,” said Jeffrey Henig, the director of the program in politics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. “This will be disappointing to some folks who were very excited and envisioned a teacher wave.”
Education Week tracked current teachers running for state legislative seats. Browse our full list of teacher candidates and see their election results.
Still, educators remain hopeful that the tide is turning—that after the series of teacher walkouts that swept the country, voters are paying more attention to education.
“I personally lost an endeavor that I chose to do, but the people of Oklahoma won because they have more advocates [in the legislature],” said Angela Graham, a pre-K teacher who was defeated by the Republican incumbent in her race for Oklahoma’s House, but who saw a handful of fellow teachers win their legislative races in that state.
Back in the Classroom
Now, the dozens of teachers who lost have dusted themselves off and are back in the classroom. At Charles Page High School in Sand Springs, Okla., the day after the election, Michael Ross greeted his journalism students with a bit of self-deprecation: “You guys have the misfortune of being saddled with me the whole school year,” he said. “Last night, I did not emerge victorious.”
His students had questions: What will he do with all the money he raised? Can they have his leftover campaign stickers? By what percentage did he lose the race? (Answer: Ross claimed 30.8 percent of the vote, while his opponent received 57.4 percent.)
Then, one student raised his hand: Was it hard?
Ross paused. He had filed to run for state House as a Democrat at the peak of the state’s nine-day walkout in the spring, fired up and ready to make a difference for public schools. But the truth is, the campaign was grueling. And his defeat was heartbreaking.
“I regret none of it. I would do it again in a heartbeat, because you guys are worth it,” he told his students. “But I’ve been on the campaign trail since the beginning of April. … It’s very, very taxing in terms of your emotional fortitude.”
The Midterms Are Over. How Did Teachers Do?
There were likely similar conversations happening across the state. Just six current teachers were elected to office on Nov. 6, with 23 losing their races. Many others lost during the primary elections: At least 66 current teachers in Oklahoma had originally filed to run for state legislature. Even so, several other former teachers, and at least four principals, were ultimately elected to the state legislature.
Teachers won in other states that had experienced wide-scale demonstrations and walkouts in the spring, too. In West Virginia, three of the nine teachers in the general election were victorious Nov. 6. In Kentucky, 12 teachers lost, but three were elected. And in Arizona, one teacher won out of six on the ballot.
For public education advocates in Oklahoma and Arizona, however, those legislative victories were tempered by the gubernatorial elections. In both states, the Democrats backed by teachers lost their races—instead, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey won re-election, and in Oklahoma, businessman Kevin Stitt triumphed over Drew Edmondson, the state’s former attorney general.
The results were a blow for the #RedforEd movement that swept the states after the walkouts. Ducey had clashed with teachers during Arizona’s strike, and Stitt has said that he would not have signed the revenue package that raised taxes to give Oklahoma teachers their first pay raise in a decade.
Still, at the Phoenix watch party for David Garcia, an education professor who challenged Ducey on a pro-school funding platform, defiant teachers pledged to keep fighting. And at the Tulsa County Democratic Party’s watch party, education supporters were hopeful that the teachers who claimed victory would serve as a check for Stitt.
Fresh off his victory, John Waldron, a high school social studies teacher who was elected to Oklahoma’s House as a Democrat, promised to hold Stitt accountable, along with other educators now in office.
“[Teachers] want things to be better, and we expect our leadership to want the same things,” he said. “And when they don’t, when they put us down, when they go after school funding, … we get a little emotional about that. And we work together to fight for our schools, for our kids, and for education.”
‘Let’s Try This Again’
While Education Week generally saw the highest numbers of teachers running for office in the states with activism this spring, there were current K-12 classroom teachers on the ballot for state legislature in more than half the country. (The National Education Association counted nearly 1,800 candidates who are connected to education running for state legislative seats—though that tally included former teachers, support staff, administrators, college professors, and others.)
Educators also ran for other offices. Most notably, in Connecticut, Jahana Hayes, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. And onlookers say that even though most teachers didn’t win their races, the door is open for continued political engagement.
“It’s quite possible that a lot of them, those who lost or those who were disappointed, will pick themselves up and say, ‘Well, let’s try this again,’” Henig said.
Karen Gaddis, a Democratic member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, leads the crowd chanting “keep it up” after giving her concession speech during the Democratic watch party on Nov. 6 in Tulsa, Oka.
—Brandi Simons for Education Week
Indeed, teachers are already gearing up for 2020. At the Democrats’ watch party in Tulsa, Craig Hoxie, a science teacher at Booker T. Washington High School, said he had already made the decision to run again. He lost his state House race to an incumbent.
“We’ll try this again. We’re going to follow John Waldron’s model,” he said with a laugh. (Waldron, who made an unsuccessful bid to the state Senate in 2016, teaches at the same school as Hoxie.)
After all, Hoxie said, change is measured in “incremental gains.”
Jennifer Samuels, a middle school teacher who lost her bid for a seat in Arizona’s state House, has also decided to run again.
“I’m concerned about the future of public education in Arizona, having lost so many races that were a possible flip,” said Samuels, a Democrat. “It’s frustrating to see that we’re going to have continuation of the same sort of politics” that led to the walkout.
But she said teachers need to stay engaged in state politics. “We picked up more seats than we should have in this very red district,” she said. “It’s about the long game for us.”
Preparing for the Legislature
As for the teachers who won their races, they are now readying their policy proposals, hoping to put education back in focus in their state legislatures.
“We need to reinvest in our schools and our kids,” said Cody Johnson, a high school social studies teacher who won his race for a seat in the West Virginia statehouse.
“We have schools where students haven’t had a certified math teacher their entire career,” he said, and buildings that are in desperate need of upgraded technology.
Some newly elected teacher-lawmakers anticipate an uphill battle.
For R. Travis Brenda, a high school math teacher elected to the Kentucky state legislature, addressing the state’s underfunded pension system is top on his list of priorities. In the Republican primary, Brenda unseated House Majority Floor Leader Jonathan Shell, who co-authored the controversial pension law that spurred teacher protests across the state.
If the law, which has been contested in the state supreme court, is overturned, lawmakers are likely to make another push to limit pensions for the state’s workers, Brenda said.
“All state employees have agreed to serve the state and work for a lower pay than if we were working in the private sector,” he said. Protecting pensions is key to attracting high-quality teachers to the state, said Brenda.
Brenda, a Republican, met Democrats in his deep-red district who said they were voting for him because he supports public schools. Education, he said, shouldn’t be a partisan issue.
More Candidates Down the Road?
Even though teachers didn’t sweep the statehouses, several governors’ races indicated that education was an important issue for voters nationally, Henig said. He noted Democrat Tony Evers’s victory over incumbent Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker, and Kansas Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s loss to Democrat Laura Kelly.
“You can’t attribute Kobach’s loss in Kansas to teacher activism, but the broad public unhappiness with the underfunding of education and other public services was a factor,” he said.
Education was also central in the ousting of Walker—the governor who decimated teachers’ unions and slashed education funding. He was replaced by the state superintendent for education, a former teacher.
But the energy that teacher candidates brought in races for red-state legislatures couldn’t compete with the historical lack of political support for funding public education in those areas, said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.
“It can’t just be a one-off with one person against a whole climate of a state,” she said, adding that for more teachers to win in states like Oklahoma and Arizona, Democrats need to get more organized and build infrastructure for continued campaigns.
Going forward, Henig predicted, Democrats may be recruiting more teachers to run at the state and local levels.
And teachers say they’re not giving up the fight. “[The mixed results] means that we don’t get to rest,” said Ross, the Sand Springs teacher who lost his legislative bid. “It means that if we’re going to prove that these kids matter to us as much as they do, we’ve got to keep punching.”
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Madeline Will,Sarah Schwartz