This article appeared in the Winter 2017-18 edition of The Classroom Teacher.

It’s easy for teachers — constantly told what to do and how to do it, feeling “piled on” by students and parents and schools boards and the Legislature — to forget how much power is in your hands. The question now is whether your “boiling point” has been reached and if you, personally, are ready to act. 

After the 2017 regular legislative session, teachers and retirees were angry. The key issue that summer was the TRS-Care reform passed by the Legislature, which increased health insurance costs and decreased benefits for retirees. School employees responded by calling, writing and holding rallies — and legislators listened. When Gov. Greg Abbott announced the topics for the July special session, they included a revisit of teacher benefits, providing the opportunity for lawmakers to increase funding for TRS-Care and ease the burden (at least somewhat) on retirees.

For many employees, this response was inadequate, but it did prove a point. When teachers join with a united voice, they will be heard.

Why you are powerful

Texas teachers number more than 350,000; including other school employees essentially doubles that figure, and counting retirees results in more than a million potential voters overall. Teacher Retirement System staff are fond of noting that one out of every 20 Texans is a TRS member. There is virtually no state or local election that couldn’t be swayed by educators voting together, and there are often statewide legislative races that are won or lost by numbers so small that even the teachers at one school could have made a difference. 

The elephant in the room

TCTA is a nonpartisan association, and we don’t endorse candidates. We make significant political contributions to candidates from both parties and we attribute our record of legislative successes to the relationships we have formed with Democratic and Republican legislators. But this must be said: virtually all of the lawmakers who support vouchers, have opposed additional funding for schools, and would like to quiet teachers’ voices by prohibiting payroll deduction of association dues are Republicans. But all Republicans are not anti-teacher/anti-public schools, by any means. It is with the help of education-friendly Republicans that bad bills passed in the Senate have died in the House and that pro-education issues have passed.

Texas districts have been drawn to favor Republicans, so most elections are determined in the primaries. Only a handful are considered swing districts that could be won by either party. 

This means that the most important races are in the Republican primary elections, and this is where educators and their supporters can make a difference. You don’t even have to be a Republican to vote in the Republican primary. (Note: you would not be able to vote in one party’s primary but switch to the other to vote in a primary runoff. Also, if you signed a petition to help get a candidate of one party on a ballot, you cannot vote in the primary of the other party that year.) If you typically vote in the Democratic primary, consider voting in the Republican primary this year. You can still support the Democratic candidate in November.

Ready to make a difference? Here’s how.

Do’s

Register and vote.

The one thing that every educator should commit to is voting in the primary elections. If you’re not currently registered, or need to update your registration with a new address, the deadline is Feb. 5. You can find out if you’re currently registered at the Secretary of State’s website (votetexas.gov). Early voting runs Feb. 20 to March 2. The primary election is March 6. 

Do some research.

In January, TCTA’s TexasTeachersVote.org website will include complete candidate listings and contact information, including the campaign websites where you can read about your candidates’ education positions. (See “Candidate code words” below to decipher what you’re reading.) It also includes voting records on bills and amendments of particular importance for those who were legislators in 2017.

CANDIDATE CODE WORDS

When you’re listening to a candidate stump speech or reading an “Issues” webpage, it’s hard to find anyone who actually sounds unfriendly to public schools and teachers. The following terms may help you understand the words a little more clearly.

  • “School choice” — Sounds nice. Means vouchers.
  • “Local control” — This one may require some deeper digging into the candidate’s intentions. Most teacher legal rights and protections (salaries, contracts, duty-free lunch and conference periods) are in law at the state level, so try to determine whether the candidate actually supports eliminating state protections in those areas.
  • Opposition to “teacher unions” — If you’re a member of TCTA, you may not be a union fan. Many join us specifically because we are not affiliated with one of the national education unions. But it is important to know that far too many legislators and candidates make no distinction between a professional association (like TCTA) and a union, don’t understand that union issues don’t really apply in Texas, and are likely to vote in support of bills like the one that eliminates your ability to pay association dues via payroll deduction.
  • No mention of education in speech or on website. Well — that’s telling.

Vote based on education issues.

Our members often acknowledge that when they go to the polls their votes are based on issues other than education. But the beauty of participating in the primary is that you will likely have the choice between two candidates who share your views on other issues, but who differ on their education stances. Support the candidate who will support you.

Talk to colleagues, family members and friends.

This can be hard for some, especially those who aren’t particularly comfortable talking about politics. But it’s a crucial step. The fact that you are reading this article likely means that you’re at the very least interested and involved in education policy and politics, but not everyone you work with is. Reach out to your co-workers and others who you believe will stand up for education and tell them that this is a crucial time that requires their participation. Ask them to register, research and vote, and tell them about candidates you’re supporting.

Don’ts

When it comes to teacher political activism, there are some important rules to be aware of. You DO have the freedom and the right to express your political views — you just can’t use public resources to do so.

Don’t use school district computers, mailboxes, copy machines, printers, phones or other property for political activism. 

It’s OK to forward a general “get out the vote” email or a reminder about voting dates. But you should never use district time or property on a message that supports or opposes a political candidate. Don’t even try to push the envelope in this regard — public information requests have been sent out to school districts seeking evidence of email references to specific candidates.

Don’t push your political views on students, parents or colleagues. 

According to the Care Enough to Vote guide publicized by the Texas Rural Education Association, “By local board policy, many school districts mandate that an employee’s participation in community, political, or employee organization activities…shall not: (1) interfere with the employee’s performance of assigned duties and responsibilities; (2) result in any political or social pressure being placed on students, parents, or staff; or (3) involve treading on the employee’s position or title with the district.

Check out our education allies for information and inspiration

TCTA has no affiliation with, and does not specifically endorse the work of, the following groups, but we support their efforts to get pro-education candidates elected and get educators more involved in the process. 

Texas ParentPAC seeks out and supports education friendly candidates, primarily based on opposition to vouchers, and posts its endorsement list before the primary elections. www.txparentpac.com

Texas Educators Vote is a group formed by administrators who are working to encourage a culture of voting in their districts. Partner school boards have passed a resolution that the board “seeks to encourage maximum participation by District employees and eligible students in the elections process.” Many lawmakers think teachers don’t vote — let’s prove them wrong. Texaseducatorsvote.com

Texans for Public Education was started by a Texas superintendent who helped organize the largest education rally at the Capitol this summer, and who is now spearheading an effort to encourage education supporters to bloc vote — regardless of party affiliation. The Facebook page (texans4publiced) has nearly 18,000 followers and the group’s website (texansforpubliceducation.com) includes a list of “friendly, unfriendly and neutral” candidates based on their research.