The teachers strikes that have roiled red states across the country burst onto the national scene seemingly out of nowhere. But a closer look at the people who make up this movement reveals the distinct Trump-era nature of the uprising.
In the four states where teachers movements have erupted over the past few months — Arizona, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma — educators and community members are encountering broadly similar circumstances. In all four states, residents are reacting to years of Republican-controlled legislatures, a decline in state funding for students and teachers, an expansion of private school vouchers and charter schools, and an increasingly galvanized electorate that is motivated by all sorts of other organizing efforts that have emerged since Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election.
And while the ranks of the educators are stocked with progressives, the strikes would have flopped had they not been joined by conservative Republican teachers who are, in significant ways, manifestations of what Washington pundits have begun to believe are purely imaginary people outside of the Beltway: folks who remain ardently conservative but are rejecting the direction the party has taken in the White House, back home or both.
“This whole effort has helped shake people from a slumber, and more people are asking, ‘Well, how is my representative voting?’” said Noah Karvelis, a public school teacher in Phoenix and a #RedforEd organizer. “People are asking if they need to rethink their votes. On our Facebook page, we even have a lot conservative teachers writing about how frustrated they are with our Republican legislators.”
Adelina Clonts, an educator in Oklahoma for more than 20 years, marched with her ten-year-old daughter from Tulsa to her state capitol, more than a hundred miles, motivated by the chance to give her students with special needs a greater shot at life.
Clonts, a Republican, said when she arrived in Oklahoma City she was disappointed to learn what her legislators had been up to. “I physically went out there to do my own research, and I found out this was basically Republicans not wanting to do their jobs, not wanting to really represent us,” she said. “It really upset me because I’m an active political party person, and it just felt like they were not hearing us.”
Clonts said she and her colleagues are prepared to vote out both Republicans and Democrats. “Everyone wants these problems fixed, and the question for our leaders is, are you trying to do something about it?”
Another Tulsa-area teacher, Cyndi Ralston, went from the sidelines to the protest and now to the campaign trail, running to take on her incumbent state representative after his viral rant against the teachers.
Were it not for Trump, it might not be happening. Kathy Hoffman, who is in her fifth year of teaching in Arizona public schools, decided to run for state superintendent after watching Betsy DeVos’s shambolic Senate confirmation hearing. “That was really the tipping point, the day it hit me [that] we really need more educators to run,” she told The Intercept. “I’m sick of people who never taught in schools leading them, and that’s also what we have in Arizona.”
Over the past year and a half, Hoffman has marched for science, for women, for DREAMers, for gun control, and, she said, for “everything.” Most recently, she’s been rallying with the newly formed #RedForEd movement, a grass-roots effort in Arizona to better fund public schools.
I’m proud to be in solidarity with our teachers at my elementary school’s #RedForEd Walk-In!
— Kathy Hoffman (@kathyhoffman_az) April 11, 2018
Edwina Howard-Jack, a high school English teacher in Upshur County, West Virginia, has spent the past 18 years in the classroom. When West Virginia teachers walked off their jobs in late February, Howard-Jack made the two-hour drive to her state Capitol on eight of the nine strike days to protest in solidarity. “The labor organizing went right along with what I was already doing,” she explained, calling the election of Trump “a wake-up call” for her. Howard-Jack marched for women in January 2017, and, soon after, decided to found an Indivisible chapter in her hometown. “There have just been so many people who were apathetic before, but now want to get involved, and the teachers strike took it all to a whole new level,” she said.
Sarah Gump, a 33-year-old teacher in Kentucky, has taught for six years in the public school system. About two years ago, she got involved with Save Our Schools Kentucky, a grass-roots effort to protest the entrance of charters into their state. (Kentucky became the 44th state to allow the formation of charter schools in 2017.) This year, as Gump has taken some time off to care for her young daughter, she’s continued to organize for public education, but has also gotten more involved with the BlueGrass Activist Alliance, a hybrid Indivisible and Together We Will chapter.
In West Virginia, educators who went on strike won a 5 percent pay raise, the first pay increase in four years. In Oklahoma, teachers won raises of about $6,000, and more in education spending, though most of their other strike demands were not met. Last week in Arizona, after more than 1,000 schools participated in a statewide “walk-in” to call for more education money, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey announced that he could give teachers a 19 percent pay increase by 2020. Ducey’s offer revealed the pressure he faced to avoid a full-blown teachers strike, but so far, educators have voiced skepticism about the governor’s proposal. And in Kentucky, where teachers have been protesting pension and education cuts, activists convinced their legislators this weekend to halt spending on new charter schools through June 2020.
As the four teachers movements all progress at different speeds — though summer vacation looms ahead for them all — educators and activists say they are under no illusion that the battles will end with the school year. Leaders have been urging for more attention to be paid to the upcoming midterm elections. “We’ll remember in November” has become the teachers’ rallying cry and warning to politicians.
“The teachers in West Virginia are happy because they won this fight, but they know it’s not over,” said Richard Ojeda, a progressive state senator running for West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District seat. “If you talk to any teacher out there, they’ll tell you 5 percent is not enough, and they’re absolutely planning on removing these people in our state leadership who fought their efforts.”
“Teachers are definitely getting more engaged in the upcoming election,” said Howard-Jack. “They’re really looking at who supports unions, who supports education, and our Indivisible chapter is the same. We’re holding candidate forums, endorsing candidates, writing op-eds. I haven’t seen anything like this energy in the past.”
In a statement released Thursday, Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, declared that as classes resume, educators “must turn our attention towards the election season. Instead of making our case at the steps of the Capitol, we have the opportunity to make our voices heard at the ballot box. The state didn’t find itself in this school funding crisis overnight. We got here by electing the wrong people to office. No more. … This fight is not over just because the school bell rings once more and our members walk back into schools. We have created a movement and there’s no stopping us now.”
Liberals across the country are hoping for a massive “blue wave” this November. In deep red states, progressives are similarly hopeful, but they are also trying to temper expectations and promote some more modest electoral objectives.
“Our goal is balance,” said Anna Langthorn, chair of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, in a recent interview with The Oklahoman. “We know that when our legislature is balanced, when our statewide offices are balanced, that we see more moderate governance and more effective governance, and so that’s what we’re aiming for. We want to break the supermajority in the House. … We want to win the governor’s race. And we want to pick up some seats in the Senate, too. The exact number may not be more than 10 in each house, but we saw that having 28 [Democratic] members made a real difference in budget negotiations, and if we can get to 34 members, that would make an even bigger difference.”
Christine Porter Marsh, a first-time candidate for office in Arizona and the state’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, says she also hopes her candidacy can bring some balance to her state’s red-leaning legislature.
“The Democrats are only two seats down from creating a tie in the Arizona Senate, and in our state, there is no tiebreaker,” she explained. “A tie loses. The seat I’m running for, against an incumbent Republican, is the most purple one in our state. If we can create a tie in the senate, not even a majority, it will be a game-changer for Arizona, because then everyone at the Capitol will have to negotiate compromises, and, to me, that is really motivating.”
Marsh, who has taught for 26 years in the classroom, says she decided to run for office after realizing a little less than a year ago that her lobbying efforts at the state Capitol just weren’t having much of an effect. “My generation of teachers, the ones who have been in it for a long time, we kind of dropped the ball,” she told The Intercept. “We were too focused on staying within the walls of our own classroom — which is so noble and wonderful and that’s what kids deserve — but so many years of doing that has created the situation in which we find ourselves, where students are directly and indirectly harmed by these bad policies.”
John Waldron, who has spent the past 20 years teaching high school social studies in Tulsa, Oklahoma, ran for office for the first time in 2016. He says his race was motivated by what he felt were terrible anti-education policies coming out of his state’s legislature. Waldron lost his race, but he feels more optimistic this time around, not only because he has increased name recognition, but also because of how much more progressive organizing there’s been in his state since Trump took office.
“Our county party has been revitalized as people got back into politics after the 2016 election, and I think if there was a Democrat in the White House, the mood in Oklahoma would be very different,” he told The Intercept. “With Trump, a lot of people who would be voting are staying home out of frustration, and a lot of people who would not be so active are now being quite active.”
Waldron knows his state is conservative, but says his legislature leans even more conservative than its voters, due to special interests funding far-right candidates in uncompetitive districts. While he doesn’t really expect a blue wave that wholly flips his state’s political balance this November, he says he’s optimistic about a decade-long process where voters “move the conversation from the far right, where it is now — where politicians want to arm teachers and to get government out of everything except a woman’s uterus — back to the center.”
According to Waldron, the highly covered Oklahoma teachers strike has “given a lot of oxygen” to his political campaign, because voters, he says, are now well familiar with the demands and frustrations of educators across the state. He says he’s been offering mentorship to other first-time teacher candidates running in Oklahoma.
“I think most of us would rather stay in the classroom, but what we’ve learned from the Oklahoma experience is that teaching is a political act,” said Waldron. “I think us teachers feel ready to handle the legislature, because we deal with teen-aged kids all the time.”
In Kentucky, 40 educators have also recently filed to run for office, organizing under the banner of A Few Good Women (And Men). David Allen, former Kentucky Education Association president, told The Intercept that the majority of these educator candidates are classroom teachers, but some work in higher education, and some have retired. “It’s a statewide kind of movement, if you will,” he said. “I’ve been pleased. We’re nothing without public education. Nothing.”