Education, says Jeanie Smith, is “dramatically underrepresented in our legislature.”
That’s one reason why Smith, a seventh grade social studies teacher, is running for office.
She’s not alone, either. Across the country, teachers are stepping into the political ring. Some are distressed by the current state of politics in America. Some are sick of attacks on teachers by elected officials. And some are seizing the opportunity to advocate for students and families.
Meet eight teachers running for office in 2018:
1. Tom Niermann
26 years; high school social studies
U.S. Congress, 3rd Congressional District, Kansas
Why He’s Running
At one point, Niermann worked three jobs to pay the bills.
During the day, he taught American and world history to high school students. After school, he hauled furniture. Nights and weekends, he taught at a local community college.
“I don’t think I saw my oldest son awake during the week in his first year,” Niermann says. “Sunday was the only day that I wasn’t working anywhere.”
That experience resonates with the voters of Kansas’ 3rd congressional district. “People often say it’s so refreshing to have someone run for office who knows what it’s like for working families, people who are working as hard as they can, following the rules and still finding it really hard to make ends meet,” says Niermann, who is hoping to be the Democratic candidate to unseat Republican Kevin Yoder.
Despite a keen interest in politics, Niermann has never before run for public office. “The timing was never quite right,” he says. “But now we’ve got an incumbent who is vulnerable.” The current political climate also inspired his run. “I’ve always told my students that our freedoms come at a price, and that price is participation. If we don’t participate, we witness the slow erosion of our democracy,” Niermann says.
More than 1000 of Niermann’s former students have already volunteered to help with his campaign.
2. Carri Hicks
7 years; fourth grade teacher
Oklahoma State Senator, District 40
Why She’s Running
Teaching is a second (or third) career for Hicks. She spent the early part of her professional life working for nonprofit agencies, including the United Way, and transitioned to teaching at the beginning of Oklahoma’s current teacher shortage.
“We didn’t have enough certified professionals to fill our classrooms and I truly just wanted to help,” Hicks says. “I made the decision to go after my teaching credentials and can say that teaching has been the most rewarding and difficult career imaginable.”
During Hicks’ time in the classroom, public funding for education continued to decline. “We experienced a 28% budget cut over the course of the last 10 years,” Hicks says. “I’ve only ever taught in a classroom that was never fully funded.”
Like many Oklahoma educators, Hicks traveled to the state capital and regularly shared her concerns with state legislators over the last few years, but her input, she says, “fell on deaf ears.”
“One of our state senators called me a liar,” Hicks says. “That underlined the fact that our current lawmakers are not only out of touch with what’s actually happening in public education, but also unwilling to hear how out of touch they are.”
Hicks won the Democratic primary in late June, and will face Joe Howell, who defeated the District 40 Republican incumbent, in the general election on November 6.
3. Aimy Steele
16 years; elementary–high school Spanish teacher; elementary–high school principal
North Carolina House of Representatives, District 82
Why She’s Running
“It’s not okay to sit back and wait for Superman to save us,” says Steele, a teacher-turned-administrator who was inspired to step after the 2016 election.
“I spent years thinking, ‘If there was a teacher or principal at the decision-making table—someone who could really inform lawmakers about how proposed laws would really impact students and teachers – perhaps they would make different decisions.’” Steele says. Now, she’s taking action. She’s connecting with community members, studying the issues and hoping to use the advocacy skills she honed as a teacher and administrator to represent the interests and concerns of District 82 residents.
The only Democrat to run for her district’s House of Representative seat, Steele is running against incumbent Republican Linda Johnson, who currently serves as a chairman of the North Carolina House Education committee.
4. Christine Marsh
26 years; high school English
Arizona State Senator, 28th District
Why She’s Running
Arizona’s 2016 Teacher of the Year wants to be a voice for educators and students.
“I’ve seen the impact systematic cuts to education have had on teachers and students,” says Marsh, noting that Arizona currently ranks 49th in the nation for high school teacher pay and 50th for elementary teacher salaries. “We lose a lot of teachers because of that, including really good ones who leave the profession and go do something that’s more lucrative, so they can sustain a family.”
Marsh is running as a Democrat and hopes to unseat Republican incumbent Kate Brophy McGee. Republicans currently dominate the state Senate by two seats; Marsh hopes to change that equation. “I see an opportunity to flip the Senate, or at least create a tie,” she says.
5. Jeanie Smith
5 years; seventh grade social studies
Kentucky State Senator, 32nd District
Why She’s Running
“Teachers see the realities of our communities. We put food in backpacks to send home on weekends. I have students with parents in jail, students with parents working two jobs. And I realized we can do better,” says Smith, a teacher at Drakes Creek Middle School in Bowling Green. “We need lawmakers who understand the middle class and those striving for middle class. Who better to do that than a teacher?”
Though she’s not held office before, Smith has long been engaged politically. “I’ve written letters to my legislators, and I’ve lobbied them on various issues,” says Smith, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for Kentucky’s 32nd district.
As a teacher, Smith learned the value of storytelling and authentic engagement, and she believes those skills will translate well in the political arena.
“One of my greatest jobs over the next year is to listen to the people in my community,” Smith says. “I want to know what their hopes are and what they think we could do better right here in Warren County. And I want them to feel that their voice is heard.”
If elected, Smith vows to “listen to people with varying opinions, with expertise in relevant fields.” All too often, she says, legislators skip that step—and pass education laws, for instance, that fail to address on-the-ground realities.
“If you haven’t been in a classroom, you don’t understand the challenges,” Smith says. “We have to listen to experts.”
6. Mark Vancuren
30 years; high school biology
Oklahoma House of Representatives, District 74
Why He’s Running
The 2016 election of his colleague, J.J. Dossett, to the Oklahoma Senate “opened my eyes to the fact that classroom teachers could be viable candidates and have a positive impact in state government,” says Vancuren.
The long-time high school science teacher and coach (Vancuren has coached golf, track, basketball and baseball) was also moved to action by his “concern and frustration regarding the current state of Oklahoma politics, particularly as it pertains to education,” he says.
The Republican won the Republican primary in late June. Because there is no Democratic candidate in his district, Vancuren has already secured his seat in the Oklahoma State Legislature. He is the Representative-elect for District 74.
7. Cathy Myers
24 years; high school English
U.S. Congress, 1st Congressional District, Wisconsin
Why She’s Running
“Resisting and protesting are good things to do—and obviously an important step—but it’s not enough. We need teachers stepping up to protect public education,” Myers says.
The February 2017 confirmation of Betsy DeVos as United States Secretary of Education inspired Myers’ run for Congress. She’d been jolted into action before: after Wisconsin’s Act 10 stripped teachers of their collective bargaining rights and soured communications between district administrators and staff, Myers ran for the Janesville School Board.
“I ran on a platform of being a voice for teachers and restarting the communication between the administration, teachers and staff,” Myers says. “I was the top vote getter.”
Now, Myer’s goal is to win a congressional seat and an appointment to the Committee on Education and the Workforce. “I want to make sure that we stop the expansion of voucher programs in this country and stop the damaging effects of policies proposed and enacted by Betsy Devos,” says Myers, a Democrat who will face ironworker Randy Bryce in the August 14 primary election.
The winner will square off against a Republican contender in November.
8. Jack Reavis
24 years; high school history
Oklahoma House of Representatives, District 14
Why He’s Running
“If you’re a single mother in northeastern Oklahoma, you shouldn’t have to take a full day off work and lose that day’s pay, just to take a sick child with an earache to a clinic,” says Reavis, noting that seven hospitals and many healthcare providers have vacated his part of the state within the last two years. “If we truly are pro-life—and I am pro-life, not just pro-birth—you need to support the programs that support life after a child is born, including public education and healthcare.”
A Democrat who lost a bid for Oklahoma state senate in 2016, Reavis won the District 14 Democratic primary in June, and will face a still-to-be-determined Republican challenger in November.
What teacher-turned-politicians do you have your eye on? Please let us know about other teachers running for office in the comments.
Jenny Marshall running for NC 5th Congress
Anthony Clark running for IL 7th Congress
My name is Rob Jarvis (High School Govt. 4 years) and I am currently running for U.S. House in the Ohio (15th) district. A teaching friend of mine let me know about this amazing wave of teacher candidates in the hopes that I would be able to contact you. Here is a link to my campaign website. https://www.robjarvisforcongress.com
Congratulations to all who are running! I am also running for the U.S. House of Representatives in Arkansas’s Second Congressional District.
Daniel Roldán-Johnson is also running in the Illinois 14th Congressional District. http://www.voteroldan.com
Meet one more educator running for office! Mariah Phillips, a high school teacher, is running for Congress to represent Tennessee’s 4th district. Mariah4congress.com. #haveyoumetmariah
I’m running for Arkansas House District 28. I teach 5th grade Science.
Todd Allen, a lifelong teacher in Texas, is running for US Congress! He just got endorsed by the Dallas AFLCIO. Give him a look, he needs support! http://Www.toddallenforcongress.com
Laura Sturgeon State Senate District 4 Delaware
Rachel Blumenfeld State Representative District 12 Delaware