Democrats hope teacher strikes will mobilize support for midterms

With public school teachers taking a stand over low pay and dwindling education budgets in several Republican majority states, Democrats are sensing another opportunity to make inroads in the 2018 midterm elections.

After decades of championing private charter schools, school vouchers and tax cuts that gut budgets for public education, Republicans in states like West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona now find themselves the targets of angry teachers.

“Teachers are just fed up. We’re done,” Teresa Danks, a third-grade teacher at Grimes Elementary School in Tulsa, Okla., told Yahoo News.

The founder of the nonprofit Begging for Education, which solicits donations to pay for classroom supplies in a state that ranks 47th in per-student funding, Danks has joined fellow teachers this week in a walkout at the state Capitol protesting low pay.

“I talked to some Republicans in the Capitol yesterday and said to them, ‘The Republicans are really getting slammed because it seems like they want to dismantle public education. If that’s the case, the Republican Party should own that,’” Danks said.

“Teachers want more,” Oklahoma’s Republican Gov. Mary Fallin told CBS News on Tuesday. “But it’s kind of like having a teenage kid that wants a better car.” When pressed over the lack of raises for teachers over the past several years, the governor said, “Well, it has been a difficult time and that’s why I’m very proud that this year we were able to get something done for our teachers.”

Under pressure, Oklahoma legislators last week passed the state’s first major sales-tax hike (on cigarettes, fuel, lodging, oil and gas production) in nearly 25 years, hoping to raise enough revenue to avert a teacher strike. But Danks says the roughly $6,000 raise isn’t enough, and points to a failed vote earlier in the year on a measure that would have given public school teachers a long overdue raise as proof that lawmakers still don’t get it.

“It was a final straw. A lot of us said, that’s it. We’ve had enough. I started a petition,” Danks said. “Teachers have gotten to the point where we feel we’re being disrespected. We’re being treated like we’re not important. Our jobs are viewed as glorified babysitting.”

Teachers pack the Oklahoma state Capitol rotunda to demand higher pay and better funding. (Photo: Nick Oxford/Reuters)

Oklahoma ranked 49 out of 50 states in terms of teacher salaries, according to a 2016 report by the National Education Association. In part, that’s why teachers have balked at the $6,000 raise. Danks wants the state to pay raises closer to $10,000, and notes that she has been forced to spend up to $2,000 of her own money each year on school supplies for her classroom.

“We are in the classroom every day fighting for these kids and we’re living the nightmare of not having what we need, of having textbooks from when Bill Clinton was president, not enough paper, broken chairs and desks,” Danks said.

As the Oklahoma teachers’ walkout continues, Danks hopes political pressure will continue to mount on state legislators.

“When this becomes an inconvenience to the parents and they get angry, that’s another whole level of voting power,” Danks said. “Our goal after we finish at the Capitol is to keep reminding parents of who is voting for education and who is not.”

In Arizona, Democratic state Sen. Steve Farley has made education the central focus of his campaign to unseat Republican Gov. Doug Ducey. One of three Democrats vying for the right to challenge Ducey in November, Farley, whose parents were both public school teachers, sees an opening for his party.

“Since the ’90s our public education system has been under attack by forces that want to privatize and destroy it,” Farley said. “We’ve been on the forefront of charter schools and private school vouchers, things to try and take money away from our public education system. After the Great Recession, hit we saw dramatic cuts to our public school budgets. We’re at an absolute crisis point now.”

Farley believes public school funding and teacher pay are crossover issues that will help him prevail in a race that Real Clear Politics currently describes as leaning Republican.

“I’m traveling all over the state for this campaign and I’m seeing the support for increased funding for education at a level I’ve never seen before. It’s not just from Democrats. It’s from Independents and Republicans,” Farley said. “Remember back in the day when a Chamber of Commerce Republican would attend a ribbon-cutting for a new public school? It was a proud addition to a community that everybody was proud of. I think that’s still the way a whole lot of Republicans feel.”

Teachers and advocates for public education march at the Arizona Capitol. (Photo: Ross D. Franklin/AP)

With another teacher pay demonstration held in Tucson on Wednesday, public education funding shows no sign of fading as an issue ahead of the midterm elections, and national Democrats have taken notice.

“Democrats are proud to stand with all the teachers making their voice heard,” Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, tweeted Tuesday.

Like many Democrats, Farley sees most Republican office holders as wedded to tax cuts, even at the expense of the public school system. It’s a platform that starts with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a longtime champion of voucher programs and charter schools. DeVos’s disastrous March interview with “60 Minutes,” in which she admitted she hadn’t visited underperforming public schools and had difficulty explaining her own education policies.

But Farley remains optimistic that solutions for fixing Arizona’s public schools are within reach.

“The fact is, we have the money to pay for our education system. Gov. Ducey and this Republican legislature have chosen to give it away with corporate tax cuts,” Farley said.

Patrick Ptak, a spokesman for Ducey, said the governor “believes more needs to be done to drive up teacher salaries. Average teacher pay in Arizona is $48,372. Since 2015, school districts have increased their investment in teacher salaries by 9 percent. In 2017, we saw an increase of 4.3 percent in teacher average salaries. Today we rank 43 among the states according to the National Education Association, and are rising.”

In January, Ducey announced a plan that sought to reverse recession-era cuts to education and to settle a $1.6 billion lawsuit brought against the state by Arizona school districts over inadequate funding.

“We know Gov. Ducey and his supporters are terrified right now,” Farley said. “Since January, the Koch brothers have been funneling dark money into these advertisements that have been wall to wall on television all over the state trying to say that Ducey has invested $1.5 billion into education and that he’s a great governor. All the figures are total lies, completely made up.”

Jeanie Smith, a social studies teacher at Drakes Middle School in Bowling Green, Ky., decided this year that the time was right to push for education — by running for the state Senate herself.

A massive rally in Kentucky for increased education funding. (Photo: Timothy D. Easley/AP)

“As a teacher, I see what my community needs every day,” Smith, who is one of 32 educators to file to run for a seat in the Kentucky legislature this year, told Yahoo News. “In Kentucky, there’s really an attack on education, and it has been in the works for years, with the introduction of charter schools, defunding our public schools and an attack on teacher pensions. You could say that all of that came together, and I realized that running was something I needed to do, that we couldn’t afford to have our legislators jeopardizing education any more.”

Another state in which Republicans control the statehouse and both chambers of the legislature, Kentucky saw teacher walkouts last week after the passage of S.B. 151, which weakens state pensions for teachers.

“Republicans right now have control of both the House and the Senate, and we have a Republican governor, so they are very much in control, and they are pushing these things through,” Smith said.

Smith’s opponent this fall will be State Sen. Mike Wilson, former chairman of the Senate Education Committee. Wilson, who did not return requests to be interviewed for this article, helped pass permanent charter school funding in the state, a bill Smith strongly opposed.

Like Farley, Smith thinks many Republican voters have been turned off by their party’s apparent disdain for public education.

“I have Republicans coming to me, thanking me for running because they want someone they can trust. They trust teachers,” Smith said. “People are ready for change. Education should not be a partisan issue. We love our schools here in Warren County, and people are upset that they are under threat.”

Whether Democrats can capitalize on the growing outrage being expressed by teachers nationwide remains to be seen. But Smith is hopeful.

“It is absolutely going to impact Kentucky. I am a perfect example. I’m a teacher and I am running to win,” Smith said. “Our campaign is including a lot of people who feel like they’re being left behind, and I am absolutely sure we’re going to see some big changes in November.”

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