Mississippi

Teacher activism is making Red State governor’s races competitive

Mississippi went big for Trump, but education supporters are threatening a political shakeup

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Paula Howard teaches in a Republican stronghold in north Mississippi, along the Tennessee border. She usually votes Republican and is closely following the campaign of Jerry Darnell, a Republican educator running to represent Howard’s home district in the state Legislature.

But — while energized about the possibility of sending a conservative colleague to the state Capital — for governor she’s backing the Democrat, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood. She likes his calls to dramatically increase funding for education, including raising teacher pay, directing an additional $300 million to school districts, and expanding the state’s public pre-K program.

And, like other teachers around the state, she hasn’t forgiven the GOP’s gubernatorial candidate, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, for opposing a 2015 school funding initiative that would have increased money for education.

“It’s not about a ticket,” Howard said. “It’s about what they can do for our children.”

Mississippians last sent a Democrat to the governor’s mansion in 1999. But November’s gubernatorial match up will be competitive, political experts say. While frustration over partisan clashes in Washington and the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump could sway voters, many educators like Howard are fired up about issues closer to home.

Related: After years of neglect, Mississippi takes baby steps to boost school readiness

“People always assume Mississippi is a very fiscally conservative state,” said Nathan Shrader, chair of the Department of Government and Politics at Millsaps College, a private liberal arts college in Mississippi’s capital. “Well, maybe it is, but Mississippi voters, I think, are coalescing around the idea that public education has been underfunded and teachers are drastically underpaid.”

Nearly 70 percent of respondents described the state’s investment in public education as “too low” in a Millsaps College/Chism Strategies State of the State Survey released in July. “This is not just a position Democrats are taking,” Shrader said. “This is starting to cut deeply across party lines.”

Spending on education is a wedge issue in the other two governor’s races this year, in Louisiana and Kentucky. A teacher sickout roiled the Bluegrass State in February, and the two candidates there have clashed on issues like teacher pensions and charter schools. Mason-Dixon pollster Brad Coker said part of the playbook for Democratic candidates is to stay focused on local and state issues.

Related: What have Mississippi legislators proposed for education in the first few days of the legislative session?

In Mississippi, the Legislature has incrementally expanded a successful pre-K program and passed two teachers pay raises in the past five years. But this year, legislators passed an education budget that was nearly $225 million less than that required by law under the state’s funding formula.

Representatives from teacher groups like the Mississippi Association of Educators and the Mississippi Professional Educators say some members are also frustrated with how Reeves sought to increase funding for a program subsidizing private school education for children with special needs last year. Teacher activism includes Facebook groups discussing the pros and cons of candidates’ K12 platforms and postcards to demand accountability. Teachers are also sharing updates about candidates from the state to local level — legislative seats are also up for grabs — through social media forums, by using the hashtag “vote with your teacher voice” to promote their grassroots efforts.

The message has spread to some unlikely corners of the state. When Carrie Bartlett’s parents displayed yard signs in their Gulfport neighborhood endorsing Hood, heads turned. Bartlett, a high school history teacher, did a double take, too.

Her parents fit the profile of voters in the Mississippi electorate who generally lean Republican. They voted for Trump in 2016, like 64 percent of their coastal county. But because Bartlett and her sister teach in public schools, and their mom is a former teacher’s assistant, they’ve seen firsthand how underfunding impacts classroom resources.

Hood’s aggressive campaign for increasing teacher pay and offering policy proposals for the state’s teacher shortage could win over voters like these. “I’m going to represent both Democrats and Republicans as governor,” Hood said in a statement to The Hechinger Report. “The issues I’m talking about are not partisan issues. For instance, we’re seeing voting blocs of teachers and supervisors coming together like we haven’t seen in 40 years. That makes a huge difference.”

Still, while Reeves may have angered some educators, it’s unclear whether the teacher activism will move reliable Republican voters. An independent poll conducted by Mason-Dixon firm in January showed Hood with a two-point lead over Reeves, but no independent polls have been released since party primaries.

A spokesman for Reeves didn’t provide specifics on how the campaign plans to shore up support among the voting bloc Hood’s team is working to peel away. The spokesman said a policy proposal with details on how Reeves plans to align teacher pay to the Southeastern average will be forthcoming. On the campaign trail, Reeves has credited educators for the state’s gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam, and Mississippi’s recently improved high school graduation rate. And he recently appeared at an educator forum in the Pine Belt to share his platform.

Related: Fighting for Mississippi’s struggling 5-year-olds, one student at a time

Coker, the pollster, said the driving issues for voters are typically the economy and infrastructure needs — not education. “I don’t think there are enough single-shot education voters to turn an election. Democrats always try to run on education. At least in recent history you need more than that.” he said.

Fred Jones, the director of government affairs for the Southern Education Foundation, pointed to Georgia’s 2018 election of Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, as an example of how education can take a back seat to other issues. “He ran a very values-based conservative-leaning platform” against former Georgia state representative Stacey Abrams, Jones said. “Overall, education was not the issue he ran on.”

Have things changed in the wake of last year’s teacher activism? Jones said, “I think the short answer is: ‘We don’t know yet.”

Even if past polling has indicated education by itself doesn’t tend to sway voters, Jones said, voters should be aware. He said the elections this year could mean the difference between “expanding school choice” and “pumping more money into traditional funding formulas.”

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Mississippi Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Monday with trends and top stories about education in Mississippi. Subscribe today!

This story about teacher activism was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Bracey Harris

Bracey Harris is a staff writer. Before joining The Hechinger Report, she covered politics and education for the Clarion Ledger where she also focused on… See Archive

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