Last September, school speech therapist Kathy Hoffman was settling into the new academic year, working with youngsters in her small classroom behind a playground at Sahuaro Ranch Elementary School in a blue-collar neighborhood outside Phoenix.
This year, the political novice is gone from her classroom and on the campaign trail across Arizona full-time as the Democrats’ choice in the race to become superintendent of public education, overseeing the state’s schools. The job is typically held by career politicians or political insiders.
“My tipping point was realizing we need more teachers running for office, people who understand what it’s like in the classroom, who have seen the effect of having the lack of resources from our lawmakers,” Hoffman said.
Hundreds of current and former educators, most of them Democrats like Hoffman, are on general election ballots from school board to governor — far exceeding educator candidacies prior to this year’s #RedForEd protests.
In her first campaign during the Democratic primary, the 32-year-old Hoffman beat a former state senate minority leader, illustrating how much a surge in teacher activism centering on higher teacher pay and increased educational funding have shaken up November midterm elections around the U.S.
She and the other teacher candidates represent a wild-card political movement following the teacher-driven #RedForEd effort that drew support from parents and school children in Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia and also focused on outdated textbooks, crowded classrooms and teacher shortages. Across the country, some educators have already won primary races against the incumbent state legislators they blamed for public school spending cutbacks.
“It’s about standing up for what’s right and bringing that teacher’s voice to that position,” Hoffman said. “I felt it should come straight from the classroom.”
After years of dense education debates over teacher evaluations and the Common Core learning standards, the new teacher candidates’ simplified message for higher pay and more funding for schools represent “talking points (that) are resonating,” said Frederick Hess, director of education policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute public policy think tank.
“What we might be seeing is the emergence of a number of individuals who will be an elected mainstream set of advocates for these teacher issues,” he said.
In the state senate races in Maine and Minnesota, teacher candidates could help flip state legislatures to Democratic control, according to Mara Sloan, spokeswoman for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. She said her group knows of 650 educators running for state legislative positions across the country this year and that more than 450 are Democrats.
In Kentucky, at least 34 current and former teachers are on the ballot in the general election for seats in the state legislature, 29 of them Democrats. In Connecticut, former National Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes won the Democratic primary for a U.S. House seat. The Oklahoma Education Association said 55 educators are running in the general election for the state legislature.
As for the Republicans, Oklahoma City assistant school principal Sherrie Conley upset three-term incumbent state lawmaker Bobby Cleveland in a primary runoff election. Cleveland is one of six Republican state House members in Oklahoma who lost their jobs after voting against a tax hike used to fund a teacher pay raise.
Experts say it’s too soon to say what sort of impact the teacher candidates may have on policy if elected. Republican State Leadership Committee communications director David James accused teacher unions of fielding Democratic candidates who would use “their education platforms to defend a Bolshevik monopoly that turns to the Prussian model of classroom teaching, rather than new innovative techniques.”
He also said “Republicans have a sizable force of educators that will win this cycle.”
Hoffman said she decided to run out of a feeling that too many education decision-makers don’t understand how public schools work. She was dismayed with the confirmation hearing of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who stumbled over questions about students with disabilities.
Hoffman became more politicized after Arizona state lawmakers refused to grant the same 20 percent raises Arizona teachers got to school support staff and a decision by the state’s outgoing education chief, Diane Douglas, to support an ethnic studies ban that a federal judge ruled was discriminatory. Douglas ended up finishing third in a five-way Republican primary.
“That’s when I realized it’s not how many offices you’ve run for and how many political campaigns you’ve had,” Hoffman said.
She calls her opponent, Frank Riggs, one of the “establishment politicians” who have put the state’s schools in crisis. Riggs is a three-term Republican California U.S. congressman who was the CEO of a nonprofit company that helps charter schools with financing and is the founding president of an online K-12 Arizona charter school.
He has criticized Hoffman for being “inexperienced and extreme” and has said she holds “radical views.” In an interview, the 68-year-old Riggs called Hoffman “a very nice young person” who is dedicated to education but said she has limited teaching experience and no leadership credentials.
“The job involves high-level executive leadership. It requires a deep knowledge of education policies and practices at the local, state and federal level,” Riggs said. “And to be a credible advocate as our state’s chief K-12 officer, it requires a degree of legislative and political expertise, which I certainly feel I have as a former member of Congress.”
Hoffman said getting her campaign going was like starting a new company. Her campaign workers in the primary were all under 40 and one was an Arizona #RedForEd protest leader. She had to learn about branding, logos, messaging and hone her public speaking and networking skills.
“Every little piece of that had to come together, and I know I’ve grown so much professionally and personally from this experience,” she said.
But candidates like Hoffman in states like Arizona that lean Republican must not only get votes from Democrats, but also Republicans or independents. And they are dependent on voters who are still thinking about public education as a key issue in November — months after the #RedForEd protests demonstrations captured national attention.
“Even if the moment is ripe and even if the message resonates, and even if there is concern about the state of public education in these states, these candidates for the most part, are still going to have to overcome the partisan disadvantage that they face at the ballot box,” said Patrick McGuinn, a political science and education professor at Drew University in New Jersey.