Wendy Lecker is a civil rights attorney at the Education Law Center who is a columnist for the Hearst Connecticut Media Group.
My 18-year “career” as a public education parent ended in June as my youngest child graduated from high school. I am witness to the profound effect my children’s teachers had on their development as students and human beings — nurturing their passions, providing life lessons, sparking their interest in subjects they had never considered, and challenging their world view.
Events this past year have shown me just how much of an effect teachers have on all of us — not just those they teach.
Those of us who have been fighting for years for strong, adequately funded, integrated public schools and against reforms that are damaging to children, communities and democracy sometimes feel like we are banging our heads against the wall.
For years we presented facts about the harm of bad education policy and the benefits of good education policy. Yet politicians ignored us and continued to push failed policies. They dismissed calls for adequate resources in impoverished schools, branding these claims as “excuses” or “maintaining the status quo.”
The media narrative has also been impervious to facts, blaming impoverished schools for “failing” children when our politicians deprive them of essential resources to serve our neediest children; and accusing public school teachers of incompetence and selfishness when students do not perform well on standardized exams that were never designed to measure school or teacher quality.
This toxic public discourse seemed unending. Until teachers across the country took to the streets last spring. Teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado and Kentucky walked out of their classrooms to protest the miserable conditions in which they had to work and their students had to learn.
And the public stood with them all the way. Parents brought their children to state capitols to support their teachers, supplied food, and participated in the protests. A new Phi Delta Kappan poll reveals that 78 percent of public school parents support teacher strikes for higher pay.
Once these protests began, the media focus changed. Cameras showed deplorable conditions in impoverished classrooms, including crumbling textbooks, broken desks and chairs. Newspapers reported on the four-day school weeks in Oklahoma resulting from years of budget cuts, and the severe lack of basic educational staff and services in the states where the teachers struck. They revealed how teachers were forced to hold down second and third jobs to make ends meet.
The concerns of striking teachers extended beyond a living wage for themselves. They fought for well-funded schools, and adequate pay for all public employees. As Georgetown professor Joseph McCartin noted, “What you’re seeing is these unions acting as defenders of the public good.”
And now, voters and politicians are getting the message.
Last week, six Republican Oklahoma house members who voted against tax increases for teacher raises were ousted in primary races. Of the 19 Republicans who voted against teacher pay raises, only four will be on the ballot in November.
In Georgia, democratic gubernatorial primary winner Stacey Abrams openly declares that she doesn’t want to be Georgia’s “education governor” — she wants to be Georgia’s “public education governor.” She advocates increased investment in public schools and opposes privatization schemes that drain resources from them.
On Tuesday, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum won a surprise victory in Florida’s Democratic gubernatorial primary. Gillum credits his public school education for much of his success in life and supports increasing investments in public schools, including raising teachers’ starting salary to $50,000.
Educator David Garcia, the Democratic candidate for governor in Arizona, vowed to “end destructive privatization schemes that drain money out of classrooms, and … to invest in our teachers and classrooms once again.”
Longtime public school supporter Ben Jealous is Maryland’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate. Teachers are running for office across the nation, including a former National Teacher of the Year, Waterbury’s Jahana Hayes, who won the primary for the U.S. House of Representative in Connecticut’s fifth congressional district.
Public education, an issue usually ignored by politicians, is suddenly taking center stage in political campaigns. I attribute this conscious embrace of public education by political candidates to our teachers, who put their careers on the line to call attention to the needs of our most vulnerable students and communities.
So as this school year begins, as a parent I want to thank Stamford’s teachers for helping me raise capable, tolerant, and independent adults. As a citizen, I want to thank America’s teachers for defending a precious democratic institution, our public schools, and in the process, for giving me hope that our democracy may survive after all.
It is our job now as citizens who care about public education to support the candidates who support our public schools and our teachers.