Being a teacher might not be the best training for being a politician, but it doesn’t hurt.
“You’re always engaged as a teacher with a group of 30 people, trying to convince them of your points,” says Schuyler T. VanValkenburg, one of two educators elected to the Virginia state House in November.
Cheryl Turpin, the other Virginia teacher elected last year, argues that people in her profession are used to bringing people together to work toward a common goal.
“We would call them cooperative learning groups in education,” she says. “You put people with different views at the table, and at the end they come up with a really great solution. Maybe not everyone’s 100 percent happy, but it’s something everthing can agree to.”
This year, educators are running for legislative seats all across the country. It’s early in the season for candidates to file, but already teachers from Maine and North Carolina to Kentucky and California have announced their bids.
“I’m a principal in an elementary school and one thing that prompted me was an unfunded mandate for lower K-3 class sizes,” says Aimy Steele, a state House candidate in North Carolina. “That impacted me directly.”
The same spirit of activism that’s leading teachers to walk out in West Virginia and stage protests from Oklahoma to Arizona is driving many of them to run for office themselves. The debate over school shootings and whether to arm teachers or other personnel at schools has also put teachers near the center of political debate.
“I’ve always thought teachers make incredible candidates,” says Andrea Dew Steele, president of Emerge America, which trains Democratic female candidates. “Our women run because they want to impact their community, and teachers are innately driven to do that.”
Most teachers who run are Democrats. Many of them, like other newbie candidates this cycle, have been motivated by their own negative reactions to the election of Donald Trump as president.
But many teachers also feel threatened by cuts to education budgets at the state level, as well as the emphasis on standardized tests and the push for school choice.
“Over the last decade, the Virginia Legislature had been kind of falling asleep on education policy and budgets,” VanValkenburg says. “Education has either been neglected or actively cut.”
Being a teacher is no guarantee of electoral success. In 2016, dozens of teachers and their family members sought legislative seats in both Oklahoma and Kansas. Only five were elected in Oklahoma, while two won in Kansas. Last week, Kristin Tassin, the president of a local school board, failed in her GOP primary bid against Texas state Sen. Joan Huffman.
But plenty of teachers are still trying.
In Kentucky, 28 current or former educators are currently seeking seats in the legislature — a record number in that state. Many were motivated to run by a recent law allowing charter schools to operate in the state, as well as proposed changes to teachers’ pensions.
“It just went through my soul that a governor would attack teachers,” Cathy Carter, a teacher running for a Kentucky House seat, told the Associated Press.“I just didn’t understand it.”
Gov. Matt Bevin won himself no additional fans among Kentucky teachers on Wednesday when he suggested on a radio show that they were disloyal and “ignorant … If they get what they wish for, they will not have a pension system for the younger people who are still working, and that to me is remarkably selfish and short-sighted.”
Education is one of the top budget items in every state, so it’s not surprising that teachers want to have a say. Teachers unions remain major lobbying forces, but some teachers want to have their own seat at the table.
“Most of us felt like public education was not being valued by our state legislature and wanted to do something about it,” says Brett Parker, one of two teachers elected to the Kansas House in 2016. “We were truly seeing the impact of bad policy from the state hitting our classrooms.”
Parker says that his experience leading classrooms helped equip him as a candidate. He was already used to public speaking and trying to make persuasive arguments.
“One of the things that was most clear to me after I jumped in was that being an educator was better training for running for office than most people think,” he says.
Although teachers get lots of time off, it generally comes at the wrong time of year. If a legislature meets from January through May, that’s half the school year missed.
Serving in the legislature can be a hardship for anyone with another job. But at least teachers are used to one thing: not making much money.
“This is a low-paid position,” says Steele, the Emerge America president. “Members of the Virginia House make $17,000 a year.”