Teachers Promise a Show of Power at the Polls

When teachers in Oklahoma went on strike for nine days this spring, the state’s politicians may not have realized that the movement for justice in the classroom was just beginning. Oklahoma’s teachers joined the national wave of walkouts and protests to demand better pay and more funding for public education. The teachers won pay bumps and the first tax increases passed by the state legislature in 28 years.

Oklahoma’s teachers, like their fellow educators around the country, had spent years watching their state legislature slash taxes as schools suffered. For Alicia Priest, head of the Oklahoma Education Association, the raises they won this spring were to be celebrated. But they weren’t enough. A Republican-dominated legislature, Priest said, wouldn’t consider additional revenue sources to fully fund the teachers’ demands.

“We got here by electing the wrong people to office,” Priest told the New York Times earlier this year. “We have the opportunity to make our voices heard at the ballot box.”

The rest of the state seems to agree. This summer, Republican primary voters severely punished a dozen incumbent politicians that went up against the teachers during the legislative battle, ending their chances at reelection. That amount of turnover is “unprecedented,” the Tulsa World said, and could signal major changes for the state legislature.

The wave in Oklahoma is just part of a greater movement propelling teachers and their allies towards more political power. And they’re not just pushing politicians to adopt their proposed policies — they’re becoming the politicians themselves. Nearly 1,500 current or former educators are running for state office, according to the National Education Association, and thousands more are galvanized as part of a grassroots movement pushing for drastic priority shifts in state politics.

But educators across the country aren’t waiting for state legislatures to take action. instead, teachers in several states have attempted to take their demands directly to the voters. Ballot initiatives have become a popular tool for teachers hoping to use the momentum from the strikes to circumvent more conservative legislatures to gain necessary education funding.

Colorado voters have the option to increase education funding and curb inequality at the same time on Election Day. They’ll decide on Amendment 73, which would raise corporate taxes from 4.63 percent to 6 percent, and would change the state’s flat tax structure. The amendment would create progressive tax brackets for Coloradans making more than $150,000 a year. The resulting revenue from both changes would go to a dedicated public education fund.

The fund couldn’t be more necessary Colorado spends about $2,800 less per student than the national average, due to a state budget funding mechanism that functions as an IOU to schools when money’s short. A February study from the Education Law Center found that the state’s wages for teachers were the least competitive in the country. That’s no news to teachers in Pueblo School District, who went on strike this May the first teacher’s strike in the state in 24 years to demand a 2 percent raise. Besides low teacher pay, the funding cut has had a tremendous impact on the quality of education. A majority of school districts have gone down to four school days a week and students are stuck with aging textbooks and equipment.

A fiscal impact statement from the Colorado legislature estimates that the amendment would bring in an additional $1.6 billion in revenues for the 2019-2020 school year. Proponents also point out that Amendment 73 helps address inequities in the tax system as well. Ninety-two percent of Coloradans won’t be affected by the change in income tax, which is overwhelmingly targeted at the state’s richest 1 percent.

While the Colorado amendment is the most ambitious, plenty of other states are putting measures related to education-related funding on the ballot. Like Colorado, Utah has resisted raising taxes by siphoning money away from schools. Now, a question on the state’s ballot will ask residents whether they favor increasing the gas tax to send more money to schools. But despite being a nonbinding question, the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity has mounted a campaign against the measure.

Utah’s far from the only state where business interests have come out against education initiatives. Two of the most promising school funding mechanisms an Arizona initiative and a Hawaii constitutional amendment — were both thrown off the ballot by the states’ respective Supreme Courts. The high courts decided that the language of both ballot initiatives was too misleading.

But Arizona’s educators aren’t about to let the court have the last say. Now the state’s teacher’s movement is pushing to oust two of the Supreme Court justices behind the decision to throw the measure off the ballot. If Arizona’s education-minded voters are as galvanized as Oklahoma’s were this summer, those justices should be concerned. Teachers are proving that their movement is only ramping up.