The Spirit of the Teacher Walkouts Lived on in the Midterms
The last time I saw Carri Hicks in person, she was wearing her newborn baby in a carrier on her chest as she filled out paperwork to register as a Democratic candidate for state senate, in Oklahoma’s Fortieth District. This was during a statewide teacher walkout, which came after a decade of cuts to the state’s education budget. The strike brought tens of thousands of educators and their supporters to the state capitol, hoping to influence their legislators, and culminated in some of those teachers resolving to run for office. Hicks, who is thirty-five and a mother of three, has the efficient beauty of someone who has done more than you have today but who still seems happy to see you. Until recently, Hicks was working as a fourth-grade math and science teacher; she has taught in three different public schools in the state and is also the daughter of a public-school teacher. Being a political candidate was something new.
On Election Night, Hicks began her evening at a watch party held by Let’s Fix This, a local nonprofit group that helps Oklahomans interact with their legislators; her husband performed a standup-comedy routine. Later, they went to their own watch party at a pub, where a local band called the Nghiems was playing. Hicks learned that she won around 9 p.m.; not long after, her friend Kendra Horn—a Democrat running for the U.S. House of Representatives in the Fifth District, which went for Trump by sixteen points in 2016, and which includes Hicks’s local district—learned that she had also won. When Hicks got home late that night , she found her four-year-old son, Sawyer, still awake. “Mom did it!” he said. All seven seats in the Oklahoma legislature that flipped from Republican to Democrat were won by women.
In Oklahoma, nineteen candidates in the “educator caucus,” an informal but informative term for candidates with strong personal ties to education, won positions in the state legislature, including John Waldron, whom I wrote about for this magazine, in June. But numerous teacher candidates lost, too, including Karen Gaddis, a Democrat and retired teacher who won a special election in 2017 in a heavily Republican area, and Cyndi Ralston, another retired teacher, who ran against an infamous Republican lawmaker who had been caught on film during the teachers’ strike whining that he wasn’t “going to vote for another stinkin’ measure when they’re acting the way they’re acting.” Both teacher candidates were popular, but they weren’t running as Republicans, and, in this election, Oklahomans voted more predictably than in previous elections this year. “In the first part of 2018, we were seeing unusual things happen in Oklahoma, with surprising special-election victories, and Republican incumbents being voted out in their primaries for being against the teacher-pay raises,” David Blatt, the founder of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, told me. “But, in this midterm, party loyalty ultimately won out. The elections became nationalized, with Team Red and Team Blue, and Republicans enjoy a growing partisan advantage here.”
Over all, it is difficult to say whether Election Night was encouraging or depressing for those who followed the teacher walkouts across the country with hope. The states that saw the largest teachers’ movements were also among the nation’s reddest, and most (but far from all) of the candidates ran as Democrats. One of the the biggest blue swings of the midterms went to Richard Ojeda, a Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in West Virginia’s Third Congressional District, who was strongly associated with West Virginia’s teachers’ strike. He received more than forty-three per cent of the vote in a district that President Trump won by nearly fifty points—but Ojeda still lost.
In Arizona, Red for Ed—a nonpartisan movement that advocates for public education, and was formed in the lead-up to that state’s walkout—worked hard to support teacher candidates, and also to encourage Arizonans to vote against a proposition that would expand school vouchers. They succeeded in defeating the proposition, and state Democrats saw some modest electoral gains, which David Lujan, the director of the Arizona Center for Economic Progress, attributes to the strength of the movement. “The House is now likely going to be thirty-one Republicans to twenty-nine Democrats,” he said, referring to the Arizona state legislature. “I am fifty-three years old, and it has not been close to that in my lifetime.” At the very least, Red for Ed has sufficient influence that candidates now feel the need to pretend to support it; in the last week of the campaign, J. D. Mesnard, the current speaker of the state house and one of Red for Ed’s main electoral targets, sent out mailers that included photos of the movement’s activists, as if he were their champion rather than their adversary. Mesnard’s mother, who also ran for the state legislature, appears to have been narrowly beaten in the Seventeenth District by Jennifer Pawlik, a teacher of seventeen years. (The race awaits a final vote tally.)
In Kentucky, a teacher walkout had already led to a vivid political unseating: in the Republican primaries, a math teacher named R. Travis Brenda beat out the speaker of the house, Jonathan Shell, who had been considered one of the country’s rising conservative stars. “Teachers and public employees responded to the threats the governor made to the pension system in part by forming Kentucky 120,” Josie Raymond, a teacher who ran for the state house in the Thirty-first District, said. “Earning the endorsement from that group this cycle was as important as earning the endorsement of older groups, maybe more.” On Tuesday, at least forty teachers ran for office in Kentucky; it was not a champagne evening of unexpected results, but some races went well. Raymond, who won national attention for a lawsuit in which she argued that she should be allowed to use campaign funds for childcare expenses, won her race. “Education is anti-poverty,” she told me on the morning of the election. Raymond had grown up poor—a beneficiary of Medicaid and free school lunches.“It’s about generational change—that’s why I ran,” she added. Even some of the losses were encouraging. Paula Setser-Kissick, a technology-education administrator, ran in the Twelfth District; her campaign had little money, no experience, and no name recognition, but her volunteers knocked on thirteen thousand doors, and she lost by only one percentage point. Many of the candidates I spoke with wished that they hadn’t needed to run in the first place, but they thought that legislators simply weren’t listening to their constituents on the state of their schools. The teachers felt that they were acting as a fire wall for democracy.
In Wisconsin, Tony Evers, a former teacher and state superintendent of schools, ousted Scott Walker, the Republican governor, who had received more than two million dollars from donors who support private-school vouchers. The new governor of Minnesota, Tim Walz, is also a former teacher. In Kansas, where Laura Kelly beat Kris Kobach for the governorship, the race hinged on education policy. The dream, maybe even a realistic one, is that going forward it will become politically untenable to siphon funds away from public education. Perhaps the most moving win in the country was that of Jahana Hayes, the National Teacher of the Year in 2016, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Connecticut’s Fifth Congressional District. She will be the first African-American woman to represent her state. “Yesterday marked fifty years since Shirley Chisholm was elected as the first African-American woman to go to Congress,” Hayes said in her acceptance speech. “Today we made history. This history teacher is making history.”
In Oklahoma, Carri Hicks, the newly elected state senator, told me that the aspect of the teacher walkout that meant the most to her was the way that parents got involved. At one point during the strike, when Republican legislators said that they were no longer willing to meet with the teachers, Hicks contacted the heads of various parent-teacher organizations, who volunteered to meet with the lawmakers in their place. “We called those moms and they showed up,” she said. “They sat in meetings for twelve hours—at the end of that day they were sobbing. But they turned their anger into action. They formed P.L.A.C., a Parent Legislative Action Committee.” P.L.A.C. advocates in the state capitol for the parents of public-school children. For years, legislators in Oklahoma could take comfort in the fact that few residents knew their names; now, parents were watching. One evening during her campaign, Hicks was going out to knock on doors, and asked if her husband wanted to come along. “No, Daddy can’t go,” Sawyer, her four-year-old, said. When Hicks and her husband asked why, When Hicks and her husband asked why, Sawyer replied, “That’s mom work.”
Credit: The New Yorker