Commentary Election 2019

Teachers are changing American politics.

We can’t quantify exactly how much of a role teachers and their opposition to Matt Bevin played in Andy Beshear’s victory this week. The teachers didn’t directly get Beshear elected on their own. There are about 42,000 public school teachers in Kentucky, so even if every one of them voted for the Democrat, that would only be 6 percent of the nearly 710,00 votes Beshear received.

But if you went to his events, teachers were there and were among his strongest supporters. If you listened to Beshear’s speeches, one of the central themes of his campaign was effectively, “I will not say mean things about teachers like Matt Bevin does.” Teachers were heavily involved in get-out-the-vote efforts for the Democrat. And broadly, the opposition to Bevin from teachers helped make Beshear’s campaign less about electing a Democrat (not a particularly useful message in a red state) and more about defending educators, who are in all of Kentucky’s 120 counties and generally well-respected.

The mobilization of teachers isn’t unique to Kentucky. The last two years have seen teacher strikes across the country, from fairly conservative places (Oklahoma, West Virginia) to liberal enclaves like Chicago and Los Angeles. Many of these teacher strikes are to push for better benefits and higher pay, like people do in other industries.

But I think there are three distinct dynamics of these teacher movements that are worth highlighting:

In red states, they are a form of resistance to the Koch-style ideology of modern Republicans.

Particularly in the Midwest and South, it’s not just that Republicans are gaining power. Many states, particularly in the South, were once dominated by Democrats, then by those same Democrats after they changed parties and became Republicans. Those Democrat-turned-Republicans weren’t necessarily opposed to big government programs. But gradually, statehouses in the South are controlled by Republicans like Bevin who have a political ideology similar to the Koch family that is very influential in conservative politics: resistance to social welfare spending (so Medicaid and pensions for public employees, for example) and an embrace of privatization of more services (like charter schools and school vouchers) and low taxes and overall government spending.

This agenda of shrinking the public sector is not necessarily that popular with rank and file voters, even those who vote for Republican candidates. (For example, Bevin could have fully withdrawn from the Medicaid expansion program under Obamacare. Instead, he opted for more limited reform of the program, adding work requirements, likely to avoid the political backlash that would have come from a full withdrawal.) The teachers in states like Kentucky and West Virginia are giving voice to that opposition to cutting (or not increasing) spending on public programs, particularly education.

I don’t think the impact of teachers in red states is usually going to be at the ballot box, defeating Republican governors or state legislators. They are in red states, after all. (Even Bevin nearly won.) But polls suggest increasing teacher pay is broadly popular, even among Republicans voters. So GOP lawmakers and governors are going to feel pressure to bend to the teachers’ will (Oklahoma and West Virginia increased teacher pay after the strikes.) I expect this dynamic to continue. If you’re Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles or one of the other Republicans likely to position himself to run for governor against Beshear in 2023, it would probably be smart to tout conservative ideas like charter schools but not do things that get you painted as anti-teacher as Bevin was.

“The fact that teachers (and nurses) are everywhere is key,” said Lara Putnam, a historian at the University of Pittsburgh who has extensively studied organizing movements on the left that have sprung up since Trump’s elections.

“Teachers, and even more so nurses, tend to have very politically heterogenous personal networks. Their neighbors, church friends, and co-workers tend to range widely across the vast middle of the U.S. political spectrum.  So when they get political engaged and mobilized to work to, say, vote out a Republican governor, they have folks in their personal networks whose votes that governor had in the past, and needs in the present,” she added.

In Democratic areas, teachers are pushing back against the testing/accountability movement.

The Obama administration was heavily associated with the “school reform” movement, which generally favors regular standardized testing to evaluate schools and teachers, consequences for schools that don’t perform well on those tests, and greater experimentation in education, including charter schools. But some Democratic presidential candidates, particularly Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, are explicitly rejecting his vision.

“As president, I’ll push to prohibit the use of standardized testing as a primary or significant factor in closing a school, firing a teacher, or making any other high-stakes decisions,” Warren said in a recent statement detailing her education policy ideas.

Why are prominent Democrats souring on this approach? Those Democratic politicians may just think the education reform movement’s ideas have failed or are ineffective. What I’m pretty sure of is that teachers oppose the school reform movement’s ideas — and Democratic politicians want to get teachers’ support. Either way, Democrats are moving away from the Obama education agenda — and I think teachers are driving that.

The teacher mobilization may be part of the broader anti-Trump movement.

We don’t have great data on how many teachers went to say, the women’s marches around Trump’s inauguration or gun control protests that have happened after mass shootings over the last two years. That said, I would assume that the broader anti-Trump protest movement has probably inspired teachers to mobilize around issues that particularly affect them.

After all, teachers are disproportionately female and Democratic, like that broader anti-Trump movement. About 77 percent of American teachers (and nearly 78 percent of Kentucky’s teachers) are women. An Education Week national survey of teachers and other school employees in 2017 found that about 41 percent identify themselves as Democrats, 30 percent independents, 27 percent Republicans. According to this survey, educators were much more likely to have backed Hillary Clinton (50 percent) than Donald Trump (29 percent) in 2016.

“Usually, women currently employed as teachers or nurses aren’t the ones at the forefront of new grassroots groups — their work schedules don’t permit it,” said Putnam.

“But retired teachers and other women from ‘helping professions’ — social workers, health care administrators, librarians, nurses, etc — are everywhere prominent among women who’ve stepped forward to lead and power grassroots groups,” she added.

I don’t expect to see teachers striking constantly — or them campaigning as hard against other politicians as they did against Bevin in Kentucky. But will aggressive, organized political mobilizations by teachers continue? I think so — since they seem to be having a lot of success.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a national political writer based in Louisville. You can reach him via Twitter or e-mail.