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From the classroom to the campaign trail: Emboldened teachers run for office

Teacher Karen Mallard, who is running for the Democratic nomination in Virginia's 2nd Congressional District, shakes Kelly Bleadingheiser's hand while she canvasses the Ocean Lakes neighborhood of Virginia Beach. (Julia Rendleman/For The Washington Post)

One recent afternoon, reading teacher Karen Mallard settled into a kindergarten classroom at Greenbrier Primary School in Chesapeake, Va., as young readers worked through a book about pets. Then, she headed home to brush up on Iran nuclear policy.

Mallard has been leading a double life for the past several months, spending her days helping young readers and then heading to a faculty bathroom to change into a suit when the afternoon bell rings so she can hit the campaign trail. Mallard, who calls herself the “Teacher for Congress,” is running a campaign for the Democratic nomination in Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District.

“I ran to make education an issue,” said Mallard, whose campaign logo includes the silhouette of an apple. “In the classroom, teachers see the failed policies of Richmond and D.C. play out every day.”

Driven by distaste for federal education policy and dismayed by the actions of state legislatures, teachers are running for office in unprecedented numbers, union officials said. In several deep-red states, educators who protested budget cuts, low teacher pay and pension changes are challenging lawmakers at the ballot box, following through on vows to oust them from office.

Teachers on both sides of the aisle are taking up the mantle, with some Republican educators campaigning on pledges to increase education spending and to slow the expansion of charter schools.

In Oklahoma, more than one-third of the 97 teachers, former teachers and school administrators running for statehouse seats are Republicans.

In Kentucky, Travis Brenda, a math teacher who campaigned on protecting public education and conservative values, narrowly upset state House Majority Floor Leader Jonathan Shell in the May 22 GOP primary — even though Shell was backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Shell co-sponsored a pension overhaul that was rushed through the state House with little input from educators, a move that touched off teacher protests.

First, it was West Virginia. Then, Kentucky and Oklahoma. Now, Arizona and Colorado teachers prepare to walk out.

Last month, in West Virginia’s primary, at least seven teachers and one former principal ran for office. Five will advance to the general election, including a social studies teacher who edged out the incumbent for the Democratic nomination in a House of Delegates race.

Stephanie Winkler, a former teacher who is president of the Kentucky Education Association teachers union, called it “a kind of educator spring,” comparing it to the Arab Spring of 2011.

“It’s a direct reflection of folks just sick of politicians dictating what we do in our jobs when they’ve never done it themselves,” Winkler said. “We’re rising up, and people are just not going to take it anymore.”

Teachers have watched as their classrooms crumbled from neglect and their school days became consumed by preparation for standardized tests. Others grew frustrated when President Trump nominated and the Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos, a billionaire advocate of charter schools and private school vouchers, to lead the Education Department. DeVos had never worked in or attended a public school.

And Trump’s suggestion to arm teachers to guard against school shooters has angered many. Mallard, inspired by student activism after the February massacre at a high school in Parkland, Fla., produced a video of herself sawing an AR-15 in half to advertise her support of gun control.

From Maine to Hawaii, about 170 teachers, former teachers and other school workers — including school psychologists, principals and teacher’s aides — are running for seats in state legislatures, according to tallies by teacher unions and the Badass Teachers Association, a grass-roots education organization.

They include Christine Marsh, the 2016 Arizona Teacher of the Year who wants to battle an expansion of private-school vouchers in that state, and Jack Reavis, a high school history teacher in Muskogee, Okla., whose dilapidated classroom floods when it rains.

The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University said at least 20 retired and working female teachers are running for Congress this year.

Their ranks are expected to grow. The National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, trained 70 teachers last year in its “See Educators Run” seminar, giving teachers mentoring and support to run a campaign. About 200 teachers applied in 2017; halfway through 2018, about 170 have applied.

Teachers are being recruited to run: In Connecticut, 2016 National Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes decided to seek a seat in Congress after she said she got a nudge from Sen. Chris Murphy (D).

‘It just hurts my heart’: Low pay, big classes are the plight of Oklahoma teachers

Teachers have long lamented that policymakers fail to grasp the daily travails they face, including the challenges outside the classroom that hamper student learning, such as trauma at home or lack of medical care.

The passage of the No Child Left Behind law nearly two decades ago sparked the rise of a culture of standardized testing and narrowed the focus of instruction to math and reading, shortchanging other subjects. It vastly expanded the government’s role in public-school classrooms to the dismay of teachers, some of whom are evaluated on how their students perform. Frustration with that law lingers, even though key components were rolled back by the Every Student Succeeds Act, which was signed into law in 2015.

Teachers hope to bring their firsthand experience to Congress and to statehouses, where they say policymakers often adopt laws that make it clear they have not been listening to teachers.

“I have dreams about writing education policy,” said Tanzie Youngblood, a retired teacher vying for the Democratic nomination in New Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District.

No Child Left Behind, which led to an increase in standardized testing, “was very unrealistic,” Youngblood said. “It was obvious that lawmakers and textbook makers put that law together without input from the teachers.”

Trump’s election and his appointment of DeVos gave Youngblood a push out of retirement and toward the campaign trail.

“Her appointment really did something to me,” Youngblood said. “I’m concerned about what we’re leaving to the future of this country, to my grandkids.”

The teachers running for office represent the political spectrum.

Katherine “Bitzi” Tate, a former high school teacher vying for the Republican nomination in Mississippi’s 3rd Congressional District, is running on a platform of radically shrinking the government’s role in public schools. She believes the federal government and the courts have overstepped their bounds in the classroom, with moves such as banning prayer in public schools and mandating racial integration.

A Christian, she wants to allow states to reintroduce prayer and Bible instruction to public schools. As a teacher, when she gave lessons on evolution, she encouraged her students to write “theory” in the margins of their textbooks, and she would teach them creationism from the Bible.

“I’m a public-school educator, and I think we can do better in public schools by getting government out,” Tate said.

Activism among educators is hardly new, but this year it appears to have reached new heights, with teachers energized by movements that drew them out of the classrooms and out of retirement to their state capitols. Teachers — regardless of party affiliation — are seeking to recapture power in GOP-led statehouses that have slashed school budgets in favor of tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy. And they’re hoping to make a mark in Congress.

In West Virginia, where starting teachers make about $32,000 a year, and Oklahoma, where budget cuts have forced some schools to move to four-day weeks, teachers were pushed to the brink.

With state budget in crisis, many Oklahoma schools hold classes four days a week

Walkouts that shuttered schools in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona have evolved into a movement on the campaign trail. In Kentucky, where a protest halted an effort to overhaul pension benefits, 26 teachers and others who work in education filed to run for office, far more than ever. When teachers rallied at the statehouse in Frankfort, they chanted: “We will remember in November.”

In Oklahoma, where teachers closed schools in some parts of the state for two weeks, nearly 100 teachers and other school employees are seeking statehouse seats.

Angela Little, whose twin boys attend school in Edmond, Okla., is one of the founders of Oklahoma Parents and Educators for Public Education, a Facebook group with more than 30,000 members.

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Little is a registered Republican and said her group cares more about a candidate’s stance on school funding than about party labels. She believes voters in Oklahoma, where Trump won every county in 2016, may choose candidates in the same fashion, giving teachers rallying for education a special edge this year.

“When we very first started this, it was very hard to get a Republican to ever vote for a Democrat,” Little said. “I don’t feel like public education is a party issue at all.”

Years of austere budgeting have warped partisan lines in places such as Oklahoma, where the move to hike taxes on oil companies — the state’s most powerful industry — to pay for teacher raises and other public services enjoyed support from Democrats and Republicans. One of its proponents was Republican state Sen. Mike Schulz, the senate’s president pro tem. A lifelong member of the GOP, he said earlier this year he never could have imagined he would back a tax hike.

Marsh, the high school English teacher at Cactus Shadows High in Scottsdale, Ariz., who is seeking a state Senate seat, said she would not have contemplated running if not for the school budget cuts. Some of her classes have ballooned to 41 students, and a student once asked whetherArizona students were worth less than students in other states, a conclusion he came to after seeing the Arizona spends less than other states on its students.

But Marsh was pushed over the edge when the state expanded its education savings accounts program, which would eventually make every child in the state eligible for a lump sum that families could use for tuition at a private school.

“We have reached the breaking point,” said Marsh, who announced her run for office as a Democrat last year.

Her opposition to education savings accounts has made her a target for groups such as the American Federation for Children, which was formerly led by DeVos and advocates for school choice. The group spent about $1,000 on robo-calls encouraging voters not to cast their ballots for Marsh. It’s part of a wider campaign — that has drawn significant funding from the Koch Brothers — to expand the state’s education savings account program.

Democrats need to flip only three seats to gain a majority in the Arizona Senate, and Marsh faces a Republican incumbent.

Campaigning and teaching full time is far from easy: Marsh sometimes rises as early as 2:30 a.m. to grade papers, prepare for the school day and go for a run before the bell rings, so her evenings are free for preparing talking points, attending forums and canvassing.

“I knew I was going to lose sleep no matter what,” Marsh said. “I decided I was going to lose less sleep by running than by not running. I would have had this internal struggle that I wasn’t doing everything I possibly could for my students.”