Education activists were big players in this year’s elections, but they fell short in red states

In 2018, an eruption of national teacher strikes shuttered schools in deep-red states across America as educators walked off the job over low budgets and stagnant salaries. Then an unprecedented number of teachers ran for political office, aggressively championing public education reform.

But educator activism fell short in Tuesday’s elections.

“With the upswing in teacher activism, it initially felt like there was this important shift toward education in the election. But, looking at the results, public opinion didn’t make a difference in the states where there were teacher strikes,” said Michael Hansen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Democratic challengers backed by teacher activists failed to unseat Republican governors in Arizona and Oklahoma, while ballot initiatives in Oklahoma and Utah were defeated. Though some key governor’s races fell their way, notably in Kansas, education activists say overall the victories were overshadowed by losses.

In the Oklahoma race for governor, Republican Kevin Stitt defeated Democrat Drew Edmondson, who promised to raise taxes to increase teacher pay, a plan Stitt rejected. Several teachers who ran for Oklahoma’s state house seats also lost.

Alberto Morejon, the middle-school social studies teacher who helped organize the statewide teacher walkout in Oklahoma, said “the results of the governor’s race was disappointing.” But he added, “We’ve taken a step in the right direction. We’re engaged and fighting back.”

In Arizona, which has some of the lowest school funding in the nation, teachers unions failed to oust Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican who became a foil for activists during the walkouts. He defeated Democratic challenger and education professor David Garcia by a wide margin. During the race, both candidates claimed the mantle of education champion.

Nearly 1,800 current or former teachers and other education professionals ran for state legislative seats this year, according to NEA data reviewed by CNBC. Many of them came from states that experienced teacher walkouts: West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina. Oklahoma saw more than 62 educators on the general election ballot. The NEA is still tallying the number of teachers who won their races, but the results did not favor states struggling with education funding.

Democrats hoped to flip state legislatures or Senates in Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina and West Virginia, all of which experienced teacher walkouts. But with exception of Colorado, Republicans maintained control.

Even in purple states, there were apparent disappointments. The National Education Association and National Federation of Teachers stumped for Democrat Andrew Gillum in the Florida governor’s race. Gillum, who promised to invest heavily in public education and raise teacher pay, conceded to Republican Ron DeSantis on Tuesday. (But that result could be in question. Margins are tightening as votes continue to be counted, which could trigger an automatic recount.)

Underwhelming voter interest in education reform could be attributed partly to the six-month gap between teacher walkouts garnering national media attention and the actual election date, according to Hansen. “Six months later, the education issue just wasn’t as pressing or visible,” he said.

Still, activists and unions savored some key victories on Election Day.

Wisconsin education chief Tony Evers ousted Republican Gov. Scott Walker in the Trump-won state, a victory that activists took as evidence of the might of teacher strength in the elections. The race forced Walker to address his record on education: He has cut funding to public education, and his administration, in 2010, oversaw a law that gutted the state teachers union.

And in Kansas, Democrat Laura Kelly narrowly defeated Republican Kris Kobach, who had backed a state law that would require 75 percent of school funding to be spent on classroom instruction. Kelly campaigned on raising education spending and had fought to support a state Supreme Court decision to increase school funding.

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