Washington – This is not only the “Year of the Woman” in politics, it is also the “Year of the Teacher” with more educators running for public office across the nation and in Connecticut, teachers’ union officials say.
Teachers are leaving the classroom and coming out of retirement to join the political fray this year driven by their opposition to federal education policy and by the actions of state legislatures.
Don Williams, the executive director of the Connecticut Education Association and former State Senate President Pro Tempore, said there is no one issue galvanizing Connecticut’s teachers to run for office, but a general sense that their participation in the political forum is needed.
“Teachers are on the front lines of democracy and civics,” he said. “They see needs in our public schools and are concerned about the future of their students.”
The CEA and fellow teacher’s union, the Connecticut affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, identified 15 educators or former educators running for the state assembly this year, which union officials say is more than ever before. Eleven are running as Democrats and four as Republicans.
Many more teachers are running for other local offices, they say, but don’t have a count.
“Voters in both parties are looking for fresh ideas and leaders,” Williams said.
One Connecticut teacher, Jahana Hayes, is running for a congressional seat in a campaign that has capture national attention.
A former national Teacher of the Year, Hayes taught history at the John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury for decades and is now an administrator in the city’s school system.
Hayes said teacher strikes in Oklahoma and West Virginia and other recent activism by teachers inspired other fellow teachers to take action.
“We realized we’ve not been at the table or involved in decisions,” Hayes said.”Not only are teachers running for office and winning, but people are taking us seriously.” She said teachers have realized that “as a collective voice, we are a significant part of the population.”
Hayes said that when she decided to run for Congress, people predicted she would be a “one issue” candidate, focused on education. But she said teachers are in a unique position to determine societal needs and problems.
“We know when someone loses a job or a grandmother can’t get a visa or a student is leaving school because a family has lost its home,” she said. “You see the impact policies have on a community.”
If she wins her race, Hayes would be the second former teacher in Connecticut’s congressional delegation. Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, was once a history teacher in Hartford.
Nationally, at least 157 teachers have filed to run for state legislative seats, according to a recent Education Week analysis.
Seventy-nine percent are running as Democrats and 18 percent are running as Republicans. Fifty-four percent are women and 46 percent are men, Education Week said.
A cut in pay for some
There’s a good reason many more teachers aren’t running for office in Connecticut and many other states, said Jason Adler, the school counselor at Waterford High School who is challenging state Rep. Jesse MacLachlan, R-Westbrook.
That’s because serving in the state assembly is a part-time job, with part-time pay. The $28,000 base salary paid annually to Connecticut’s representatives and senators ranks 20th highest in the nation.
Adler said his school’s administrators would allow him to work part-time as a school counselor so he could serve during the General Assembly’s session, which usually runs from February to May.
“My family agreed it was worth the cut in pay in my salary,” he said.
Adler, 44, said he decided to run for office because he was concerned with the “huge problem” teachers and other state employees face because of the state’s underfunding of their pension plans.
The General Assembly tried to balance the budget by increasing the percentage of money public school teachers had to pay towards their retirement, which, Adler said, strains teachers’ income as the cost of living continued to grow.
“That’s why we need more than just career politicians in Hartford,” Adler said. “Ideas from all sides are welcome but, if folks don’t fully understand the consequences of those ideas, they should not be implemented. We need an educator in Hartford to educate the politicians.”
Adler said he’s also concerned about the “chipping away” of the Affordable Care Act. And of course, he said he cares about education in the state.
“The focus is on 21st century skills,” Adler said. “I worry about that.”
He believes infusing technology into education is a good thing, but must be coupled with “soft skills” that teach students resiliency and how to interact with other people.
“We can’t look at 21st century skills without knowing previous century skills,” he said.
Timothy Walczak, 34, teaches eighth grade science at the Henry James Memorial School in Simsbury.
He is running as a Republican in an attempt to unseat Rep. John Hampton, D-Simsbury. Walczak said he entered the political world after witnessing “the climate becoming extremely hostile” in his classroom after the 2016 election of President Donald Trump. He said the students were bitterly split between Trump supporters and those who opposed the president.
“And they were only in eighth grade,” Walczak said. “I hope my running as a Republican is giving a new face to the Republican Party.”
He says he’s a “compassionate” fiscal conservative who is moderate on social issues, “because I’m a teacher.”
He also said he’s running for the General Assembly because “people who are making the decisions are disconnected to the people they impact.”
To Walczak, this is a year of the political outsider, when candidates like him have a chance at winning at the ballot box, especially teachers who are open to learning and new ideas.
“We don’t come in with a firm mindset,” he said “We have a growth mindset.”
Walczak encourages his students to follow their ambitions, whatever they may be.
“Every year I sign my students’ yearbooks with the statement ‘be the change you want to see in the world,’” he said.
Here are all the Connecticut teachers or former teachers currently listed on the November ballot:
Henry Genga (D) – former teacher running unopposed in 10th House District
Bobby Gibson (D) – teacher running unopposed for re-election in the 15th House District
Joshua Hall (D) – teacher running unopposed in 7th House Dist
John Larson (D) – former teacher running for re-election in 1st U.S. House District
Ed Vargas (D) – former teacher running unopposed in 6th House District
Mary Daughtry Abrams (D) – Former teacher running against Len Suzio for the 13 Senatorial District
Jason Adler (D) – teacher running against Jesse MacLachlan for the 35th House District
Laura Bush (R) – teacher running against Mike Winkler for the 56th House District
Rich Deecken (R) – teacher running against Marilyn Moore for the 22nd Senatorial District
Steven Giacomi (R) – teacher running for the open seat in the 73rd House District
Aimee Berger-Girvalo (D) -special education teacher running in 111th House District
Jahana Hayes, (D) – teacher running for open seat in the 5th U.S. House District
David Lawson (D) – former teacher running for 20th Senate District
Joe Markley (R) — former English teacher running for lieutenant governor.
Allen Marko (D) – retired teacher running against Whit Betts for the 78th House District
Ron Napoli Jr (D) – teacher running for the open seat in the 73rd House District
Vickie Nardello (D) – former school nurse running for 16th Senate District
Timothy Walczak (R) – teacher running against John Hampton for the 16th House District