PHOENIX — May 17, 2018, 9:21 AM ET

Teachers who led strikes now turning focus to elections

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As they packed up their protest signs and returned to the classroom to finish out the school year, thousands of teachers in North Carolina turned their attention to a different fight: the midterm elections.

Their counterparts in Arizona, Oklahoma and West Virginia are already waging a similar battle following protests over teacher pay that shut down schools statewide in recent months, transforming education funding into a major midterm campaign issue in many states.

Leaders of the Arizona movement are gathering signatures for a ballot initiative to tax the wealthy and use the extra money to pay for education. They are vowing to oust lawmakers and other state officials whom they deem anti-education. Teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky are running for office in larger numbers, in some cases directly challenging incumbents who slashed education spending.

A march through downtown Raleigh on Wednesday drew thousands of teachers and shuttered schools for about two-thirds of the state's students. Hundreds of people outside the House and Senate galleries held signs and chanted: "Remember, remember, we vote in November." City blocks turned red, the color of shirts worn by marchers shouting "We care! We vote!"

Teachers believe the momentum from the walkouts will propel them into the elections and force politicians to take education seriously.

"We turn to the ballot and we get it done that way," said Noah Karvelis, an organizer of the group Arizona Educators United that mobilized the teacher walkout. "We got the power, we just execute now."

In Oklahoma, the candidate filing period coincided with the second week of a teacher walkout that drew thousands of disgruntled educators and their supporters to the Capitol. The result was dozens of teachers and administrators who filed for state House and Senate seats, many making their first-ever run for office. Popular targets were Republican incumbents who opposed a package of tax increases used to pay for teacher raises.

In Kentucky, at least 39 current and former teachers are running for seats in the state legislature in its upcoming primary. The most high-profile race involves a high school math teacher who is running against Republican Jonathan Shell, state House majority floor leader. Shell helped write a bill making changes to the teachers' troubled pension plan that prompted an angry response from teachers.

Amanda Jeffers, a Democrat and a high school English teacher in Oklahoma City, said she had no plans to run for office until the statewide teacher walkout, where she grew frustrated with the frosty reception she got from legislators.

"I always thought teachers were a respected community in the state. We were not treated with much respect," Jeffers said. "The condescension is definitely what sent me over the edge."

The teacher movement is already having electoral consequences in the place where it started, West Virginia. On the state's primary night last week, voters nominated Democratic state Sen. Richard Ojeda to run for an open congressional seat. Ojeda is a retired Army major who became popular with the state's teachers for supporting their efforts.

Jessica Sanabria, a second-year teacher at Alderman Elementary School in Wilmington who attended Wednesday's rally in North Carolina, isn't yet registered to vote but will be soon. She said recent teacher strikes in other states and what's happening in North Carolina has caused her to be more interested in what candidates stand for.

"I'll be ready for next time to vote — absolutely," Sanabria said. "I've definitely gotten more involved."

Mark Jewell, president of the lobbying group North Carolina Association of Educators that organized the march, called Wednesday just the beginning of a six-month long effort to replace legislators it blames for failing to raise teacher salaries and provide adequate school funding.

Arizona teachers, too, are pledging to stay politically involved following a six-day walkout that jammed the Capitol with raucous rallies and secured a 20 percent pay raise over three years from a Republican-controlled statehouse and GOP Gov. Doug Ducey. Many teachers toted signs with the message "Remember in November" during the walkout, and the grassroots group is focusing its immediate efforts on the ballot initiative to increase income taxes on wealthy earners.

More than 150,000 valid signatures are required to get the initiative on the ballot, and teachers have been training on how to circulate the petitions. On Wednesday, organizers pledged to gather 25,000 signatures in support of the tax proposal in solidarity with North Carolina.

The movement in Arizona is known as #RedforEd because the teachers donned red shirts when they began to organize — and its messaging bears a striking resemblance to a political campaign. #RedforEd yard signs, messages of support scrawled on cars' back windows and bumper stickers remain visible around Arizona communities, more than three months before the state's August primary.

It's still too early to tell what kind of effect the movement will have on 2018 races in Arizona, with a hotly contested U.S. Senate seat and Ducey running for a second term. And the momentum of the movement is sure to face political opposition — the Republican Governors Association is already running pro-Ducey television ads describing him as a champion of teachers, and Arizona has previously been a hotbed of political spending for pro-school choice interests like the billionaire Koch brothers.

Former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, called the teachers movement a force to be reckoned with.

"A sleeping giant was awoke. They're awake and alive and they're out there and they want change," she said.

Brewer also said that while the pay increase was well-deserved, teachers are overplaying their hand with the proposed tax increase on the wealthy.

"If the teachers put that initiative on the ballot I think that could almost kill them," Brewer said. "That's just a page out of Bernie Sanders' playbook, that is so socialist that I don't think people would tolerate it."

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Associated Press Writers Gary Robertson and Emery Dalesio in North Carolina, Bob Christie in Phoenix, Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City and Adam Beam in Mount Vernon, Kentucky, contributed to this report.

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  • TexasVulcan

    Money for education beyond decent teacher salaries is very important. I encourage everyone to support candidates who want to properly fund public schools.

  • lambimt

    Schools should be run like a business. Great teachers should be paid well, bad teachers should be fired. If someone does not like the deal then they can find something else to do. In my business I reward productive employees with great pay, I reward unproductive employees with an opportunity to work somewhere else.

  • 1980Gardener

    This is more likely to harm kids than benefit them. First, higher salaries will not lead to better educational outcomes. Second, higher salaries mean higher taxes which leads to less money for parents to save for college, spend on health care, etc.

  • Educated

    This is smart for these teachers to do this. Republicans don't want teachers to be a political entity. They want them to be overworked so they can't be politically involved. Teachers across the country are underpaid and undervalued.

  • MickC

    The difference between teacher anger and general voter anger is that teachers represented a well-educated, hard-working, organized group who will actually continue their efforts right through the elections instead of the usual short-memory result of the general population that loses its steam by election time.
    The teachers will organize to have people at EVERY polling station for the entire time the polls are open. They will advertise.
    Once, my county elected a new county executive who hired his wife, a 3x the salary of the person he fired to create the position for her, and then tried to cheat the teachers time and again, once by trying to change the contractually agreed health insurance to a much poorer alternative at only a very slightly cheaper price: apparently kickback-related.
    The teachers were outraged and out in force at the next election and he was tossed out of office and never again was elected to anything.
    So if you're an elected official in states that are against your low paid teachers who average spending $700/year out of their own pockets because not enough materials are provided to teach the kids, I'd be careful what I said or did.

  • Hank R

    Is it possible that spending more money isn't the answer?

  • Me again

    I am not going to pay more taxes to fund public schools when I don't even use the system. My kids will not be indoctrinated in those shameful schools. Disgusting the agenda they are trying to push onto kids these days.

  • Elroy

    Average Elementary School Teacher Yearly Salary in Kentucky. Elementary School Teachers earn an average yearly salary of $52,420. Salaries typically start from $38,360 and go up to $66,800. So if I take the average based on 180 day school year at 6.5 hours per school day, that's $44.80 per hour. A full time, 40 hour per week job at the teachers hourly rate is a $74,547 per year salary. The median wage for workers in the United States in the fourth quarter of 2017 was $857 per week or $44,564 per year for a 40-hour workweek.

    Sorry but what are these teachers complaining about - sure they put in extra hours - who doesn't? They also get pretty nice benefits which the vast majority of workers don't get.

  • katerant

    Republican politicians don't care about education. They care about getting more dollars into the top2%. They are behind the assault on knowledge and facts and think it works to their advantage. An ignorant, uneducated, desperate populace is vulnerable to brainwashing, as we have seen this past election cycle.

  • Slavin Rose

    The GOP doesn't care about teaching kids. They'll just throw them into the privatized prisons when they go bad from lack of education and opportunities, padding their investment accounts even more.

  • brian nrndss

    All of American teachers should strike for better pay