This year teachers took their mission way beyond the classroom.
Starting in West Virginia, we staged half-a-dozen walkouts in red states across the country demanding a better investment in children’s educations and often getting it.
Then we took that momentum and stormed our state capitals and Washington, DC, with thousands of grassroots campaigns that translated into seats in government.
It was so effective and unprecedented that the story began circulating that 2018 would be known as “The Year of the Teacher.”
And then, just as suddenly, the story stopped.
No more headlines. No more editorials. No more exposes.
So what happened?
The gum in the works seems to have been a story in The Atlantic by Alia Wong called “The Questionable Year of the Teacher Politician.”
In it, she writes that the teacher insurgence was overblown by unions and marks little more than a moment in time and not an authentic movement.
It really comes down to a numbers game. Numerous sources cite high numbers of teachers running for office. Wong disputes them.
National Education Association (NEA) senior political director Carrie Pugh says about 1,800 educators – both Republicans and Democrats – sought seats in state legislatures this year. Likewise, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), a group that works to elect Democrats to state legislatures, puts the number at 1,456 educators.
Wong disputes these figures because she says most of these people aren’t currently K-12 classroom teachers.
“The NEA uses the word educator liberally, counting essentially anyone who currently works in or used to work in an education-related job, such as professors, guidance counselors, and school administrators.”
Maddy Will and others at Education Week agree with Wong’s assessment. According to their analysis, out of the thousands of education-related candidates, they could only prove that 177 were K-12 classroom teachers.
And there you have it.
A story about teachers taking over their own destinies is dead in the water.
However, this begs two important questions: (1) Is not being able to corroborate the facts the same as disproving them? And (2) Is being a K-12 classroom teacher a fair metric by which to judge education candidates?
First, there’s the issue of corroboration.
Wong, herself, notes that part of the disparity, “…may come down to the inconsistent ways in which candidate lists are compiled from state to state and organization to organization.” It’s unclear why that, by itself, throws doubt on the NEA’s and DLCC’s numbers. These are verifiable facts. Journalists could – in theory – track down their truth or falsity if their parent companies ponied up the dough for enough staff to do the hard work of researching them. The fact that this hasn’t happened is not proof of anything except low journalistic standards.
Second, there’s the question of whether Wong and Will are holding teachers up to a fair standard.
Since the Great Recession, more than 116,000 educators have been out of work. If roughly 1-2% of them decide to run for office, doesn’t that represent a rising tide of teachers striking back at the very representatives responsible for neglecting schools and students? Aren’t they seeking to right the wrongs that put them out of work in the first place?
Even if we look at just the people currently employed in an education field, why are college professors defined out of existence? Why are guidance counselors and principals not worthy of notice?
Certainly K-12 classroom teachers are at the heart of the day-to-day workings of the education system. But these others are by no means unrelated.
Carol Burris was an award-winning principal at South Side High School in the Rockville Centre School District of New York before becoming Executive Director of the Network for Public Education (NPE). Diane Ravitch, who co-founded NPE, is an education historian and research professor at New York University.
If Wong and Will are to be believed, the work of Burris and Ravitch on behalf of public education should be discounted because they are not currently working in the classroom. That’s just ridiculous.
This isn’t about logic or facts. It’s about controlling the narrative.
The Atlantic and Education Week are artificially massaging the numbers to support the narrative their owners prefer.
And let’s not forget, both publications are in bed with the forces of standardization and privatization that educators of every stripe have been taking arms against this year and beyond.
Though The Atlantic is a 162-year-old pillar of the journalistic establishment, it was purchased on July 28, 2017, by the Emerson Collective. This is Laurne Powell Jobs’ philanthrocapitalist cover organization which she’s been using in a media blitz to reinvent high schools by way of corporate education reform.
Likewise, Education Week has always had a corporatist slant on its editorial page and sometimes even in the way it reports news. Nowhere is this more blatant than the publication’s annual Quality Counts issue which promotes the standards-and-testing industrial school complex of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core, etc.
It’s no wonder that these organizations would want to stop the narrative of insurgent teachers taking a stand against the very things these publications and their owners hold dear.
They want to cast doubt on the record-breaking activism of parents, students, citizens and, yes, teachers.
But the facts tell a very different story.
From West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky to Colorado and Arizona, educators took to the streets last spring to rally for adequate, equitable and sustainable K–12 funding.
All over the country, we’re demanding properly equipped classrooms, better wages, and stronger public schools.
In Connecticut we sent the first black woman to the legislature from the state, Jahana Hayes, a school administrator and Teacher of the Year.
We took down Wisconsin’s anti-education Governor Scott Walker. Not only that, but we replaced him with the state superintendent of public instruction, Tony Evers, on a platform centered on schools and learning.
And he wasn’t the only educator with a gubernatorial win. Tim Walz, a former high school teacher, became governor of Minnesota.
In Oklahoma, former teachers Carri Hicks, Jacob Rosencrants, and John Waldron all won seats in the state legislature, who along with others riding the pro-school tide increased the state’s “education caucus” – a group of bipartisan lawmakers committed to improving schools – from nine members to 25.
Even where candidates weren’t explicitly educators, mobilizing around the issue of education brought electoral victories. Democratic candidates were able to break the Republican supermajority in North Carolina because of their schools advocacy.
Even in Michigan – home of our anti-education Education Secretary Betsy DeVos – Gretchen Whitmer was elected governor after campaigning against public-school funding cuts.
In Illinois, anti-education governor Bruce Rauner got the boot, while Democrat J.B. Pritzker unseated him on a schools platform.
And in Kansas, not only did school districts successfully sue the state for more funding, Laura Kelly defeated conservative incumbent governor Kris Kobach on a platform of further expanding school funding.
These victories didn’t just happen. They were the result of grassroots people power.
The NEA says even beyond educators seeking office, members and their families showed a 165% increase in activism and volunteering during the midterm election over 2016. This is especially significant because participation tends to flag, not increase, around midterms.
So let’s return to the disputed numbers of teachers who sought election this campaign season.
Of the 1,800 educators the NEA identified, 1,080 of them were elected to their state legislatures. When it comes to the smaller American Federation of Teachers (AFT), 109 of 178 educators won.
If we go by Education Week’s numbers, just 43 of 177 won.
Clearly, this is not the whole picture.
The education insurgency was more than even getting candidates elected. It was also about changes in policy.
In Massachusetts, we successfully repealed the Ban on Bilingual Education so educators will be able to teach English Language Learners in a mix of the students’ native language and English as a bridge to greater English proficiency.
In North Carolina, we successfully lobbied state lawmakers to stop for-profit charter schools from taking over four of five public schools.
Because of our advocacy, the amount of time spent on these deeply biased assessments has been cut in states like Maryland, New Mexico, West Virginia, Hawaii, and Pennsylvania.
The highly suspect practice of evaluating teachers on student test scores has been dropped in Connecticut and the weight it is given has been reduced in New Mexico.
Now with new policies in Idaho and North Dakota, 10 states have explicit laws on the books allowing parents to opt their children out of some or all of these exams.
Half of New Hampshire’s school districts have replaced standardized tests in most grades with local, teacher-made performance assessments.
These accomplishments should not be minimized.
Teachers are at the heart of communities fighting the good fight everywhere.
And in most places we’re winning!
We’re teaching our lawmakers what it means to support public education – and if they refuse to learn that lesson, we’re replacing them.
If that’s not “Year of the Teacher,” I don’t know what is.
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