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Why Teachers Are Going From Classrooms To Campaign Trails


Well, it is back to school season. Millions of teachers across this country are getting their lesson plans together. They're decorating their bulletin boards. Others, though, are busy elsewhere, like on the campaign trail.


JAHANA HAYES: Tonight is just the beginning of the real fight...


HAYES: ...The fight for the soul of this nation. On November 6, we take back the House.


GREENE: That's the voice of Jahana Hayes giving a victory speech earlier this week. In 2016, she was named National Teacher of the Year. And on Tuesday, she won her primary in Connecticut's 5th District, setting her up to be the first black Democrat to represent that state in Congress. Hayes is not the only educator with newfound political ambitions. Both parties have taken note of this, and so has Anya Kamenetz from NPR's Ed team, who's with us.

Hi, Anya.


GREENE: So how significant a trend is this?

KAMENETZ: Well, Education Week is counting. And they say that 157 current teachers have filed to run for state legislatures only across the country. And those are overwhelmingly Democrats. And they call that an unprecedented display of political activism. Besides Hayes, who we heard - her personal story includes being homeless and a pregnant teenager as well as a teacher - in Wisconsin, the state school superintendent, Tony Evers, became the Democratic nominee for governor this week. And he'll be taking on Republican incumbent Scott Walker, who is interestingly associated with taking away a lot of the bargaining power of public employees, including teachers, in that state.

GREENE: Well, issues that interest teachers or that are important to teachers have, you know, often been involved in the political debate. So what is driving this decision now among so many to actually get in the ring?

KAMENETZ: Well, I think, there's a few different trends here. So obviously, you know, we saw walkouts statewide in six states earlier this year. They were over benefits, over pay. In Oklahoma and Kentucky specifically, two red states, there's actually dozens of teachers running for office. I spoke to one of them, Renee Jerden, who's running for state senate in Norman, Okla. That's a seat that's gone for years without a Democratic challenger. And she told me, a good chunk of my family are diehard Republicans, and every single one of them is 110 percent behind me.

And people like Tony Evers, you know, they're using slogans, you know - what's best for kids is best for our state. They're drawing connections between teaching and bread-and-butter issues, not just education but public services, health care, jobs, housing that all affect kids. And then we're also seeing teachers activated on the national level as well.

GREENE: And you talk about the national level. Does that mean President Trump? I mean, has his strategy on education or his presidency brought out more teachers who want to get involved here?

KAMENETZ: So you know, it's not so much about education exactly. Obviously, Betsy DeVos has polled as one of the least popular Cabinet members, so that's a factor - the education secretary.

GREENE: Right.

KAMENETZ: But issues like family separation at the border have riled up teachers with concern for their students. For example, this week, we saw some shareholder activism with the American Federation of Teachers issuing a report on how state pension funds were invested in companies profiting from immigrant detention and urging these funds to divest. So...

GREENE: So I guess one question I have - I mean, if teachers are out of the classroom this much, are kids going to be missing their teachers who are out there running for office?

KAMENETZ: I mean, that's a needle to thread. Right? For teachers, as they get politically active, they still need to stay rooted in their communities. And you know - but we've always seen teachers kind of treading this line, you know, whether it be organization, turnout, money or even running for office themselves.

GREENE: All right, interesting stuff. Anya Kamenetz from NPR's Ed team.

Anya, thanks.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.