Teacher candidates weren’t that distinctive after all 

Leading up to last month’s elections, teachers running for office got a lot of attention. In Oklahoma, of the 19 lawmakers who voted against a teacher pay raise last spring, eight lost their primary and seven did not seek re-election, while the number of teachers in the state legislature more than doubled. In Kentucky, where teachers had risen up to fight pension reform, GOP House Majority Leader Jonathan Shell was upset in the primary by a math teacher. In hindsight, though, we can now assess the extent to which there was a larger “teacher wave” and what that portends for education in 2019.

For one thing, it appears that the “teacher wave” was oversold. It turned out that the number of teachers running for office in 2018 was actually smaller than it was in 2016. And in the states where teachers had walked off the job during the spring’s celebrated teacher strikes, there was no shift in party control of the legislature. Most teacher candidates in Arizona, Oklahoma, and West Virginia lost their bids for office, while the teachers who did win were mostly incumbents.

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More significantly, despite claims that teachers were leading a “blue wave” or a “Red for Ed” crusade, an examination of strike-state teacher platforms suggests there was no distinctive “teacher agenda.” To gauge what teacher candidates were endorsing, we examined the platforms of teachers running for office in the four walkout states — Oklahoma, West Virginia, Arizona, and Kentucky. We identified major party nominees using Education Week tracking, a list from the Oklahoma Education Association, and one from the Louisville Courier-Journal, and biographies from state election websites. We identified 184 “teacher” candidates and compiled their platforms using candidate websites, local newspaper coverage, and social media pages. Only 35 percent of the candidates were Republicans, but 18 Republicans ultimately won their elections as opposed to 16 Democrats.

This exercise was revealing. First, few teachers provided a comprehensive platform. Forty-four candidates did not provide a platform online. Of the 140 who did, all called for increasing education funding. The one other education issue which summoned broad bipartisan agreement was skepticism toward school choice, with 35 of 39 candidates who mentioned school choice expressly opposing school vouchers and charter schools — including ten out of 14 Republicans. No other issue was mentioned by even half of teachers.

When teachers did take positions, they tended to reflect party norms. Despite its relevance for spending, taxes were mentioned by less than a third of teacher candidates (40 Democrats and 18 Republicans), with candidates largely split along party lines: Republicans emphasized spending existing resources more effectively; Democrats the need to raise taxes on business and the wealthy.  

About a quarter of candidates, including 30 Democrats and 10 Republicans, mentioned criminal justice reform, with broad agreement that there should be more rehabilitation and reduced sentencing. Forty-five candidates (39 Democrats and six Republicans) mentioned affordable healthcare, with Democrats generally supporting Medicaid expansion. On other issues important in these four states, ranging from gun control to roads to social issues, no more than 20 percent of teacher candidates offered a position.

Teacher candidates in the walkout states were uniformly supportive of more school spending, and the fraction that mentioned school choice was bipartisan in their opposition. Beyond that, however, it’s not all that clear that teacher candidates shared a broader agenda — either with regard to the ins and outs of education policy, or in terms of broader policy disputes. That should give pause to those who would too quickly leap to conclusions about what teacher candidates mean for politics or schools.

Teacher strikes and marches may have captured the public’s imagination, but they weren’t enough to produce teacher candidacies that disrupted partisan loyalties or politics as usual.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Sofia Gallo is a research assistant at AEI.