Educators seek louder voices as candidates

By: | September 25, 2018

Fed up with funding cuts and policies passed without educator input, some 170 current and former teachers, principals, and other educators are running for seats in state legislatures this year, a Washington Post analysis found.

These candidates face the challenge of balancing a demanding career with a political campaign.

Educator involvement in politics has increased dramatically in recent years, says David Griffith, senior director of advocacy and government at ASCD.

This past year, teachers and administrators swarmed state capitals to protest salaries, working conditions, school funding and other issues.

The failure to return education budgets to pre-recession levels has also inspired educators to take political action, Griffith says.

“For years, educators have lamented that policymakers don’t have firsthand experience in the modern classroom” Griffith says. “Now, we’re seeing them not only reaching out to decision-makers, but actually wanting to become those decision-makers.”

Funding cuts spur political action

Drastic funding cuts in Oklahoma pushed Ronny Johns, the principal of Ada Junior High School (part of Ada Public Schools), to run for office. He won the June Republican primary in Oklahoma’s House District 25.

“Our district had to pass a bond issue this past year just to order new school buses and textbooks” Johns says. “We’ve got textbooks in our building older than the kids.”

For Aimy Steele, former principal of Beverly Hills STEM Elementary School in North Carolina’s Cabarrus County Schools, the final straw impacting her decision to run as a Democrat in the state’s House District 82 was a call from the district office, asking her to make room for five more classrooms in her already overcrowded school. No extra funding for teachers or construction was provided, she says.

Finding time to work and campaign is the top challenge for educators running for office, Johns and Steele agree. Steele entered the race in December 2017 and resigned as principal in June to campaign full time. If Johns wins in November, he plans to retire from the district, he says.

Campaigning challenges

Educators trying to juggle their day jobs also struggle with self-promotion and fundraising, Johns and Steele say.

The busiest time of the school year and of a general election campaign is the fall, says Griffith of ASCD. Educators don’t have the flexibility to adjust their schedules for campaign activities, and are not typically trained to raise funds on their own.

Those who seek elected office and do not win can still bring back lessons learned, Griffith says. “If people are running for office, they aren’t going to stop being active and engaged” he adds.

Educator political action can bring many ancillary benefits to a school, Griffith says, including getting colleagues and students interested in the political process.

Neither Steele nor Johns received criticism from parents about their campaigns. However, it’s important to ensure that no lines are crossed when it comes to politics and professionalism at school, Griffith says.

For example, they cannot do campaign work while on the job, use school resources for political purposes or solicit donations from parents of students. Otherwise, they are typically allowed to participate in campaigns.

“You have to follow the appropriate laws and regulations, but those are in no way an impediment to being an active participant in our electoral and democratic process” Griffiths says.