An intensifying series of red-state battles over education funding and teacher pay threatens to loosen Republicans’ grip on some of the country’s most conservative states, as educators and parents rebel against a decade of fiscal austerity that has cut deeply into public education.
As Arizona teachers pressed for higher salaries and more school funding, and Oklahoma teachers won some concessions from lawmakers amid a nine-day walkout, some in Kentucky continued their protests in favor of more money for education. Last month, West Virginia’s Republican-controlled government raised pay for teachers after a statewide strike.
The clashes could elevate public education into a major issue in several midterm races this fall. Republicans are defending dozens of governorships and state legislative chambers across the country, including in several Southern and Western states where all-Republican governments have passed sweeping reductions in taxes and spending.
On Wednesday in Chandler, Arizona, a middle-class suburb of Phoenix, hundreds of parents and students joined teachers in protesting outside schools. A parent, Christine Clinger Abraham, whose daughter is a senior at Chandler High School, wore a red blouse to show solidarity with the teachers’ #RedforEd movement. “They take so much personal interest in the kids,” Abraham said, “but they have to have a second job” to make ends meet.
Abraham typically votes Republican, but said, “I would switch party lines” in order to support candidates who want to increase education funding. “I am very disappointed in the Republican Party we have locally,” she said.
Both Republicans and Democrats in these strongly conservative states see the unrest around education as symptomatic of broader unease about years of budgetary belt-tightening that have followed popular tax cuts.
In Arizona, home to weak labor unions and a muscular school-choice movement, Gov. Doug Ducey, a first-term Republican, has championed tax cuts and private alternatives to public schools. Under pressure from teachers who threatened to walk out, the governor said Thursday that he would provide teachers with a 20 percent raise by 2020 without raising taxes. It was unclear whether that would be enough to meet teacher demands for more overall education funding.
Democrats running for governor have aligned themselves closely with teachers. The two Democrats vying to oppose Ducey, state Sen. Steve Farley and David Garcia, a former state education official, said they viewed education funding as the strongest issue galvanizing opposition to the Republican-held government. Both Democrats have called for eliminating a range of tax exemptions to create revenue.
In Kansas and Oklahoma, backlash against severe service reductions has spurred Republican-held legislatures to enact taxes that would have been unimaginable a few years ago.
Gary Jones, the state auditor of Oklahoma and a Republican candidate for governor, said his party had been “irresponsible” in slashing taxes without a plan to make up for lost revenue. That has bitten into public education: some rural districts in Oklahoma have a four-day week and some schools are rationing paper and cutting foreign language classes.
A former chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, Jones said Republicans would imperil their hold on the governorship if they did not address voters’ alarm about properly funding public services.
“It’s real easy, politically, to cut taxes,” Jones said, cautioning that some issues matter more than taxes: “People care about their kids. They care about their futures.”
Most Republicans in the governor’s race, however, have not joined Jones in chastising the right and the party overall remains committed to a small-government agenda, including in education. Among Democrats in these states, there is rising hope that a debate over funding schools and paying teachers could help them appeal to normally skeptical voters to the right of center.
Drew Edmondson, a former state attorney general in Oklahoma who is running for governor as a Democrat, called education a populist issue with appeal to rural conservatives.
“It’s the special interests and the lobbyists who have kept our tax rates artificially low, to the detriment of our schools and hospitals and services to people,” said Edmondson, who has been protesting with teachers at the state Capitol. “I think that’ll resonate with the Trump voter.”
Oklahoma’s governor, Mary Fallin, a Republican, has already approved an increase in the state’s tax on oil and gas production to increase education funding. On Thursday, the head of Oklahoma’s largest teachers’ union called for an end to the walkout and said the group would now be working to elect pro-education legislators in the fall.
The education issue appears most likely to affect governor and state legislative races where school funding is most directly at stake. In some states, however, important federal offices are also on the ballot and mobilization among teachers and education-minded voters could raise turnout in perhaps half a dozen contested races for the House and Senate.
It is not unusual for states to elect governors of the opposing party because of state-level concerns. As recently as 2008, the four states rocked by mass teacher protests — Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia — all had Democratic governors. During the Obama administration, several blue states elected Republican governors in part as a check on government spending and powerful labor unions.
Most conservative leaders believe they still have a mandate to enact a broad agenda of fiscal restraint, including in education, at the state level. In Kentucky, teachers are protesting a bill, signed on Tuesday by Gov. Matt Bevin, to restructure public pensions for future teachers to be more like private 401(k) accounts. But state Sen. Damon Thayer, the Republican leader in the chamber, predicted the measure would be popular in November.
Thayer acknowledged some legislators might feel pressure from “teacher protests and the hate-filled rhetoric on social media.” But he said he intended to campaign aggressively to defend the pension overhaul, and said voters had elected an all-Republican government because they wanted dramatic reform.
“I believe there is a huge, silent majority out there, who are shaking their heads ‘yes’ at what Republicans are doing right now,” Thayer said in an interview. “Frankly, I don’t think this will be a negative, in terms of this fall’s campaign.”
Democrats in these states are making the opposite calculation. In Kentucky, Andy Beshear, the state attorney general and a potential candidate for governor in 2019, has rallied with teachers and has vowed to sue to block the legislation.
Kentucky teachers have mobilized in response: in addition to protesting, at least 40 educators are planning to run for state legislative seats this year, said David Allen, a former president of the Kentucky Education Association. Most are Democrats, but eight Republicans are among them.
“It’s urban, rural, statewide and it is indeed unprecedented,” Allen said of the mobilization. “I became an educator in 1968 and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
The school-funding fights are likely to have implications within the national Democratic Party, which has struggled to win rural states over the last decade and counts public employee unions as a crucial constituency. Democrats eyeing the 2020 presidential election, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, have expressed support for the teachers. And Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., hailed the strikes as a sign that populism on the left can prevail in culturally conservative states.
“Somebody told me that West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky are ‘red’ states,” Sanders wrote on Twitter on April 3. “They got that wrong.”
Yet it is far from clear that the education protests are tied to a wider Democratic agenda. Trump won overwhelmingly in states such as West Virginia and Oklahoma, and by a smaller margin in Arizona. Union officials cautioned that many of the protesting teachers tend to vote Republican.
Talley Sergent, a Democratic candidate for Congress in West Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes the protest-swarmed capital of Charleston, said the walkout movement that ignited in her state was essentially nonpartisan.
“It’s something even bigger: the frustration people have felt and continue to feel for getting the raw end of the deal,” Sergent said. “They feel the government is rigged against them and not working for them.”