Arizona teacher candidacies surge in wake of spring walkouts

Posted at 9:28 AM, Aug 13, 2018

The spring of teacher uprisings has given way to summer, but these are anything but lazy days for educators continuing the fight through their own election campaigns.

Hundreds of teachers are running for office in November elections, campaigning primarily on promises to address public education spending cuts and meager pay hikes that provoked walkouts in states including Arizona, Oklahoma and Kentucky.

As they spend summer break courting voters, hanging signs and debating opponents, teachers also are seeking a measure of vengeance against state legislative incumbents perceived as not supporting their cause.

In Oklahoma, where more than half the 100 educators who filed for office survived last month's primary elections, teachers describe a contentious relationship with state Republican leaders over stagnant funding for schools and the rejection of a teacher pay hike.

"At their heart, they didn't respect the public schools and public school teachers," said John Waldron, a Tulsa high school government and history teacher who is running for the Oklahoma House.

Nationwide, union counts put the number of educators on ballots for offices from school board to state legislature at more than 300, more than double the 2014 and 2016 numbers.

For some, victory can mean a leave of absence from the classroom or even resigning to handle their new responsibilities.

Christine Pellegrino, a Long Island reading teacher elected last year to the New York Assembly, said the six-month legislative sessions made continuing to teach impossible.

"It was a really hard transition to make, but I get to do so much more," said Pellegrino, a Democrat. "I get to deliver money for schools."


A six-day teacher walkout this spring kept most Arizona students out of school while teachers protested for increased pay and school funding. Lawmakers passed a budget that authorized a 20 percent teacher pay increase over three years but fell short of demands for more overall funding for public schools.

Sitting in the front row of the Senate gallery that May night was Jennifer Samuels, a Scottsdale teacher who been leaning toward a run for office -- but not until 2020.

"I just realized that we didn't have any time to waste," said Samuels, an English teacher and athletic director at Desert Shadows Middle School. "My eighth-grade students, essentially their entire academic career, they've lived in underfunded schools and overcrowded classrooms."

She is now a candidate for the state House -- one of more than 40 Democrats running for state legislature who are current or former teachers or education professionals, according to the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. The state Republican Party says at least four current educators are running for the legislature.

The mother of three acknowledges she's an underdog, but she feels propelled by the grassroots movement that inspired her to run.

"We know that we can win if we turn out the vote," she said. "We know that people in our district support education, and they are looking for an education candidate."


Waldron, the Tulsa teacher, was among dozens of Oklahoma teachers who unsuccessfully ran for office in 2016. This year, their numbers have multiplied, partly because the candidate filing period coincided with a two-week April walkout when tens of thousands of educators closed school districts and thronged the Capitol demanding more funding for public schools.

Since then, six Republican incumbents were ousted from office in the June primary, including several who voted against a tax increase to pay for teacher pay raises.

Carri Hicks, a Democrat who's a fourth-grade math and science teacher from Deer Creek, said she is running for state Senate because teachers need a voice inside government.

"We need protected class sizes. We need a respectable salary. And I think those echoes you've heard of teachers feeling undervalued or disrespected are really tied to that," Hicks said.


Many teachers in Kentucky were getting more involved in politics to oppose a 2017 law that made charter schools legal when the Republican-controlled state legislature proposed changes to the state's underfunded pension system. That prompted thousands of teachers to march on the Capitol in a protest that forced dozens of school districts to close.

The legislature passed the law anyway and within weeks of the vote in March, House Majority Leader Jonathan Shell, one of the lawmakers who wrote the bill, lost his Republican primary to a high school math teacher who has never held public office, R. Travis Brenda.

At least 34 current or former teachers are seeking seats in the state legislature this fall. About two-thirds are Democrats. It's the most educators on the ballot ever in Kentucky, according to David Allen, a former president of the Kentucky Education Association.

Many teachers considered to have the best prospects against incumbents are running in rural districts, where public school systems are often the largest employer.