Education Week - April 11, 2018 - 19
Democrats Hope to Ride Teacher Activists' Momentum
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Ross D. Franklin/AP
with voters of all stripes come November.
"Everybody has had a teacher that inspired
them or kept them in school and, as simple
as that sounds, there are few things that's
as familiar to all of us as public schools and
teachers," said Joe Thomas, the president of
the Arizona Education Association.
The rallies around teacher pay issues that
have erupted in Arizona, Oklahoma, and Kentucky have taken on clear overtones of electoral politics. Voter registration booths lined
walkways. Petitions and volunteer forms were
In Oklahoma last week, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Drew Edmondson gave
teachers at the state Capitol rulers with his
campaign slogan and cups of hot cocoa.
And at an especially raucous rally in Phoenix earlier this month, David Garcia, a former
teacher and a Democratic candidate for governor, posed for selfies with teachers.
"Every one of these teachers is a potential
voter and volunteer canvasser," said Ian Danley, Garcia's campaign manager, while looking out over a crowd of thousands of teachers banging cowbells, blowing whistles, and
chanting slogans against incumbent Republican Gov. Doug Ducey.
Democrats are feeling hopeful that their
laser-like focus on education might work this
fall. Of the seven special elections for legislative seats in Oklahoma last year, Democrats
seized four of them. Two of those candidates
"We're not using any groundbreaking techniques here," said Anna Langthorn, the chairwoman of Oklahoma's Democratic Party, who
said education will again be a number one
issue on voters' mind this fall. "We're putting
up leaders who are offering solutions for our
ABOVE: A protester at the Arizona
state Capitol in Phoenix alludes to the
recent West Virginia teacher strike as
Arizona teachers and education
advocates demonstrate against low
teacher pay and school funding.
An Uphill Battle
Still, Democrats face a grinding, uphill battle.
Democrats fully control just eight states, compared to the 26 where Republicans control both
the governorship and the legislature. Legislative districts in most states aren't drawn toward
Democrats' favor, and knocking out of office an
incumbent with both name recognition and
ready-made war chests is no easy task.
As the teacher protests have rolled on, Republican leaders in Florida, Texas, and Wisconsin have made a concerted effort to detail their
own efforts to increase public school funding,
even while Medicare, pension, and other government costs have soared in recent years.
Besides, they point out, public school systems in Democratically controlled states such
as Connecticut and Oregon aren't necessarily
flush with cash either.
Democratic efforts to exploit the fervor over
teacher pay and school funding have been especially intense in Arizona. For three years
now, public school funding has been a leading
concern among voters, according to a poll conducted by Expect More Arizona, a nonpartisan
advocacy group that pushes for improved academic outcomes.
The state is among the lowest in the nation
in teacher pay, and has one of the nation's
most expansive school voucher and charter
"We're finally coming out of the recession
and our economy is healthy, but we're in a
state where politicians have over many years
divorced the conversation about tax policy
from the cost of funding different parts of
government," said Christine Thompson, the
president and CEO of Expect More Arizona.
Democrats there haven't held a statewide executive seat for more than a decade. But Demo-
Marchers at the Arizona Capitol
press their case. Democrats in a
number of states see labor activism
and public concern about education
as fueling their chances of gaining
ground in the bid for state legislative
seats and governorships in the
crats need only two seats in order to control the
state Senate, and with the state's voter registration evenly split between Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, there's a chance Democrats could grab the governor's seat.
After West Virginia's recent teacher strike,
Arizona's teachers ramped up their threats,
staging rallies, calling legislators, and increasingly turning their ire toward the governor.
Democratic candidates have been in lock step
Ducey has in recent weeks scrambled to
quell the teacher-led movement dubbed "Arizona Educators United." He and the Republican-run legislature late last month extended
an 18-year-old sales tax that's poured tens
of millions of dollars into the state's public
schools, and the legislature is currently attempting to pass a budget that provides for
an incremental increase in school funding.
But Ducey has not managed to boost teacher
pay, an expensive task that likely will require
new taxes in this conservative state. (A 1 percent pay increase would cost the state an esti-
mated $34 million.) Arizona requires the approval of at least two-thirds of its legislature
in order to pass a new tax.
As the legislative session approaches its
close with a teacher strike seeming more
likely than not, the political vitriol has
"Both Republicans and Democrats are for
public schools but the difference is we're realists, and we're in power, and making reforms to
make schools better," said Republican state Senator John Kavanagh, the vice chairman of the
Senate's appropriations committee. "The Democrats are like the emperor with no clothes."
Business advocates, including the Arizona
Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the
utility company Pinnacle West, are backing
Ducey and have pumped $1 million into a
campaign called Arizona Education Project
to salvage the reputation of the state's public
"Quite frankly, there are entities in this
state that see political advantage in talking
down the quality of our schools," said Matthew Benson, the spokesman for the Arizona
Education Project. "Arizona schools have made
a lot of progress. That's not to say that we're
where we want to be. Because clearly, we're
not. But we're on the right track."
Meanwhile, leaders of Save Our Schools Arizona, which has helped organize the teacher
protests, are reluctant to align themselves
with a specific political party. They want
higher pay and more money for schools, and
say they don't care whether Republican or
Democrats do it as long as it gets done.
At the recent statehouse rally by teachers,
several candidates asked to set up campaign
booths-a request the Save Our Schools Arizona organization ultimately denied. The
group is currently debating whether to endorse candidates this fall.
"We feel there's a little bit of a danger of
developing enemies where you don't want to
have enemies," said Dawn Penich-Thacker, a
spokeswoman for Save Our Schools Arizona.
At the rally, several teachers said even if
they don't strike, they'll express their rage at
the polls this fall. One protestor held a sign
that said, "I'm a teacher and I vote."
EDUCATION WEEK | April 11, 2018 | www.edweek.org | 19