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Teachers unions in Ohio seek to elect educators to office

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Special-education teacher Donna O’Connor and 23 of her colleagues gathered at their union’s headquarters here in January for a first-of-its-kind campaign boot camp. Prompted by an intense battle over collective bargaining that has pitted unions against a Republican-controlled State Assembly, the Ohio Education Association started grooming its own candidates to take back control of state education policy.

O’Connor, who is currently running for a House seat in the Columbus suburbs, felt her own sense of urgency as she learned how to fundraise, write speeches and debate during the union training sessions. “I started connecting the dots about seven years ago [that] I couldn’t just shut my classroom door and the politicians would leave me alone,” she said.

(Photo by Progress Ohio)

Teachers have long run for office, often with encouragement and support from their unions. This year, however, educators in states with some of the biggest labor disputes and most controversial education policies have been campaigning in record numbers. It’s one of the most direct ways that teachers and unions are showing their frustration over mounting attacks on tenure, the growth of nonunionized charter schools and efforts to evaluate teachers based on student test scores.

“You’re starting to see a lot of teachers say, ‘Enough is enough. I want to run for office,’ ” said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform. The group works to elect Democrats committed to making dramatic changes to education policy, including many that the unions oppose such as eliminating tenure. Williams said he expects the trend of educators vying for office to continue. Official statistics aren’t kept on how many teachers are running, but anecdotal evidence from several states suggests the numbers are up.

The teachers union in Wisconsin, which was the center of a lengthy battle over collective bargaining last year, has six members competing for statewide office. In Tennessee, the first state to pass a law tying teacher evaluations to test scores, nine out of 11 teacher-candidates survived state legislature primaries to advance to the November elections. (Typically, two or three teachers in Tennessee run for any sort of office in a given year, according to the state’s teachers union). And in Minnesota, where mounting class sizes and debates over changing the seniority system have upset teachers, 35 educators are on the ballot. Members of the Minnesota teachers union, Education Minnesota, have estimated that that number is about a third higher than normal.

“Unfortunately for the past two years, the Legislature has ignored the real problems and focused on bashing teachers,” Education Minnesota president Tom Dooher said in a written statement. “We’re hopeful more people with classroom experience will be elected and re-order its priorities next year.”

Ohio was thrust into the national spotlight last year when its legislature passed Senate Bill 5, which banned unions from collective bargaining. A ballot initiative that November repealed the law, but the memory—and the anger it inspired—has not faded.

Although many potential candidates who attended the OEA’s training sessions decided not to run this year (and one lost in a primary), 10 remain on the ballot for state office—an unprecedented number, according to the OEA. In the last six years, just three other OEA members have run. This year, an 11th educator, a former member of the Ohio Federation of Teachers (OFT) in his first year of retirement, is also running.

The Republicans have a stronghold in both houses of the Ohio State Assembly. In the House of Representatives, they are one member away from a super-majority, which would mean that any law passed as an “emergency measure” would take effect right away.

State congressional districts were redrawn in Ohio this year, in what supporters of the teachers union claim was gerrymandering meant to help Republican candidates. Still, the changes created new seats for some teachers to run and prompted others to challenge incumbents. Many teachers are now locked in tight races in districts that lean heavily red.

O’Connor, the special-education teacher, lost her current representative, Democrat John Carney, to another district during the redistricting process. Faced with an incumbent who had voted against collective bargaining and for a budget that cut state education funding by more than 10 percent, O’Connor decided it was time for her to get directly involved. She described the bill that outlawed collective bargaining as the “icing on the cake” in motivating her to run.

Tom Schmida, an OFT retiree up for election to the House in the Akron suburbs, was also spurred to run by a host of issues. A Democrat, Schmida is concerned about the future of collective bargaining, charter school accountability and a provision in the approved budget bill that will tie teacher evaluations to test scores. “An overreaching agenda by the extreme elements of the Republican Party, especially in the State House, [goes] beyond Senate Bill 5,” he said.

Schmida is in a close race against incumbent Republican Rep. Kristina Roegner, a staunch proponent of charters, vouchers and the elimination of collective-bargaining rights. Schmida’s grassroots campaign has knocked on about 7,500 doors and made 9,000 phone calls. Many of his volunteers are teachers and union members themselves, he said.

Both of the state’s teachers unions have endorsed all of the teacher-candidates. The OEA has also sent out mailings to members about its teacher-candidates, organized phone banks and helped produce a campaign video. “We’ve supported them through every means we possibly can,” said OEA president Patricia Frost-Brooks.

OEA declined to give specifics on the amount of money it has spent to help teacher-candidates get elected.

To Williams, these steps are a logical extension of unions’ long-time political involvement. “Teachers unions all over the country have been pretty successful at keeping the pipeline for potential candidates for office filled with good candidates,” he said. “We’re starting to see the unions take their message up a notch. It’s not just about good candidates … [but] getting teachers to be recruited.”

Yet Williams worries that too many teachers in office might derail the current education reform agenda. “As we move into an area where there’s lots of debates about teacher-quality issues and teacher-tenure issues, [the unions] are going to want people who will shut that debate down,” he said. He believes having more educators in office will be helpful only if they offer perspectives from the trenches without sidetracking the reform conversation.

Several Ohio teacher-candidates say they’re open to discussion and compromise. They add that their larger goals—like a better system of funding education—need not be divisive. It’s more about ensuring a teacher voice, they say.

“In 2011, that really showed us what happens when we don’t elect officials that are pro-workers, pro-public education and pro-teacher,” O’Connor said in her OEA-produced campaign video, referring to Senate Bill 5. “Electing pro-public education candidates is most important this time around. I think the teachers that are running, we can help protect and improve public education from the inside out.”

This story also appeared on NBCNews.com on November 2, 2012.

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