Educators in many states have been the subject of headlines focused on attention-grabbing strikes. These strikes have been successful to varying degrees. But the trend of educators fighting to secure more funding for their schools and adequate compensation for their work isn’t over. All across the nation, educators have turned their attention to the upcoming elections. They’re voting, they’re volunteering with campaigns, and they’re even running for public office.
Elections matter; we all know that. Elected individuals represent Texans in their communities, and in Austin and DC. They have the power to make critical decisions about education, healthcare, transportation, taxes, and so much more.
Our state legislators hold the power to equitably and adequately fund our public education system for Texas students—or not. They also have the authority to enact a voucher system that syphons already limited resources to unaccountable private schools. They can ensure educators receive the pay they deserve for the important work they do, or they can just as easily decide teacher pay should be significantly based on students’ standardized test scores. They can vote to prioritize healthcare funding for active and retired educators, or they can vote to turn the Texas Teacher Retirement System (TRS) from a defined benefit pension into a defined contribution plan in which your future benefits would not be guaranteed.
All of these decisions (and many more) affecting your students, schools, and profession are in the hands of the people Texans elect to represent them. The strikes and walkouts in other states have put pressure on legislators, but they have not changed the fundamental issue standing in the way of success: There are still many legislators currently in office who are willing to vote against the interests of public education in favor of the terrible alternatives mentioned above.
It is illegal to strike in Texas, but Texas educators can still join the efforts of fellow teachers across the country. As the nation’s eyes turn to the general election in November, the impact that active and retired Texas educators can have on elections in Texas is huge. Educators in other states are already planning to play a big role during election season, and their plans offer us a chance to learn how to ensure elected officials support public education.
The Oklahoma Example
Oklahoma educators walked out of their classrooms in early April following years of cuts to state education spending. Their salaries rank among the lowest in the country. A high school teacher earns roughly $42,000 on average, while many earn significantly less. Strikers ultimately didn’t get everything they wanted, like needed funding for schools, but they did get a $6,000 pay raise.
But they didn’t just take their pay raise and go home.
Fast forward to Oklahoma’s June 2018 primary election, where more than 100 educators from across the state ran for office at all levels of government (local, state, and federal). Many ran against incumbent legislators who voted against or weren’t supportive of their efforts in April, and some incumbent legislators even faced multiple educator opponents. Despite the fact that these educators were newcomers to the often complicated and expensive world of elections, 71 Oklahoma educators advanced beyond the primary election!
Oklahoma educators have made an impact on their state’s gubernatorial race. The state’s term limits mean Gov. Mary Fallin can’t run again. The frontrunner expected to replace her was originally Republican Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb, but Lamb opposed the pay raise and school funding increases. He didn’t even make it past the primary. Instead, Oklahoma’s Republican primary voters gave the most votes to the only candidate who offered support for the pay raise, even though it required a tax increase.
Oklahoma educators have forced the issue of public education to the center of the election conversation by becoming active in the political process. They didn’t back down once they received a pay raise, and they are still holding their elected officials accountable.
The Kentucky Example
As their legislative session neared an end in late March, Kentucky lawmakers used a sly political maneuver to narrowly pass a bill to overhaul the state’s pension system. The governor later signed the bill into law, transitioning all new educators to a defined contribution plan that operates like a 401(k).
In the days following, Kentucky educators rallied at their state capitol in protest. Thousands of educators descended on the building, chanting “Vote them out!” Then they did just that.
House Majority Floor Leader Jonathan Shell, one of the most powerful Republicans in Kentucky politics and perceived as a rising star by national leaders, authored the bill to overhaul the pension system. He lost his May primary election to political newcomer and high school math teacher Travis Brenda. Brenda campaigned along with a number of other teachers throughout the state who recognized the anger many of their colleagues felt after watching state leaders sell their retirement down the river under cover of darkness.
The bottom line: Educators in Kentucky turned their frustration over a bill that destroyed their pension plan into action by activating at the polls. They didn’t let defeat overcome them. They took steps to ensure such a bill doesn’t pass again.
The West Virginia Example
West Virginia educators went on strike in February 2018. They were fighting low pay and problems with their healthcare plan that included high costs, privacy concerns, and their voices being shut out of the process. The strikes ended with a deal they considered a big win, but some lawmakers who stood in educators’ way didn’t let up.
Republican State Sen. Robert Karnes opposed the pay raise and healthcare plan adjustments for educators. After the vote, when asked if he would face fallout in the election for his vote that conflicted with teachers in West Virginia, he replied that he didn’t think it would have much effect. He based that largely on the assumption that most teachers were Democrats.
Karnes lost his Republican primary in May. Kentucky educators made a powerful showing in his district and throughout the state, with a high percentage of pro-public education candidates making it out of their primary elections with victories.
Educators filled the West Virginia Capitol in February with chants of “We will remember in November!” After successfully pressuring their state legislature to act, they turned that success into election activism that will continue to pay big dividends in better public education policy down the road.
The Texas Opportunity
In all of these examples, a groundswell of educators banded together to vote for the candidates who would best serve their students, classrooms, schools, and profession. Even when their candidates didn’t win, they forced the issue of public education to the forefront of the political conversations happening around the state.
They flexed their political clout by showing they can swing elections. They ensured their voices were heard by those who make big decisions affecting their students. They used their political power to enact change—not just through strikes that sometimes bring short-term change, but through participating in the election process in order to foster long-term success for public education.
Educators nationwide are going into the November general election with momentum, and Texas educators are more than equipped to join the unrest—not by striking, but by voting and getting politically involved. Active and retired educators combined make up huge numbers in Texas, numbers that have the power to swing elections. It just takes activism during election season.
Follow the example set by your peers in other states. Find the way you want to get involved in the current election. You can make an impact and be a part of big change in Texas.
Follow our blog at TeachtheVote.org for updates about ongoing legislative issues and how you can get involved. And don’t forget to connect with our lobby team on Twitter @teachthevote for breaking news and important insights.