As the school year winds down, I have been watching with interest a debate on social media among educators about the best answer to the timeless teaching question, “What are you doing this summer?”
There is one activity that all educators should do this summer: Vote.
While teachers can and should debate whether to spend the warm months attending training sessions and improving lessons for the coming year or focusing on resting and recharging with family and friends so rarely seen during a school year, voting is an absolutely essential activity for those who want to improve our educational system. Primaries will be held across the country for midterm congressional elections, as well as key offices in state and local government.
I know that voting may not fit into the typical notion of a summer activity like a trip to the beach, but this year, it is critical for us if we want to serve our students.
Voting for the Kids
These elections come at a moment of incredible opportunity for those seeking to do what is best for kids in schools—but this is also a real moment of danger if we fail to act.
The danger rests in the illusion that this year’s elections don’t really matter—that they are nothing more than a sideshow to the “real” election in 2020. However, the reality is that, while the actions from the White House can certainly be damaging to students, the most important elections for education have always been at the congressional, state and local levels.
On nearly every issue that matters to teachers, these elections are incredibly important.
For example, if you care about educator development and systems of support, congressional elections determine the level of federal Title II spending.
State and local elections are even more important on this topic. According to the Gates Foundation, we spend around $18 billion annually on teachers’ professional development, and federal Title II dollars account for about one-ninth of this total. In fact, that pattern carries forward to nearly every area of school funding, as federal money typically only accounts for around 10 percent of total education spending in a state.
This is the time of year where students and teachers most clearly feel the effects of policies that result in our students being overburdened by tests—with limited value—that seek to measure growth. And while it is true that the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) places requirements on the grades and subjects tested in schools each year, the law largely leaves it up to the states to determine which tests are used and how many instructional days are devoted to testing.
This is an especially important point under a U.S. secretary of education who has repeatedly stated her commitment to ensuring only that state education plans “meet the law’s requirements.” To date, the reactions of state policymakers to this newfound freedom has been mostly disappointing.
For example, the U.S. Department of Education allowed states to apply this spring to participate in an Innovative Assessment Pilot under ESSA, and only four states stepped forward for the opportunity. I don’t think you could find anyone in this country who thinks that there are only four states that need to rethink their approach to assessment, but apparently 46 states weren’t willing to try something new when given the chance.
The list of reasons why this year’s elections matters to schools is endless. Whether you want to see policy change on issues ranging from school safety, to teacher pay, to the status of DACA recipients, the elections occurring around the country pose a real chance to push for reform.
A Hard—But Vital—Choice to Make
In spite of these high stakes, I know there are some educators who may hesitate to get involved because they think it’s not part of the job.
However, while it’s not a partisan action, teaching is an inherently political act every single day. If the job of teachers is to make sure kids have what they need to learn, teachers can’t be silent when they have a chance to influence policies that fail our children. I’ve often heard it said about teachers that “we’re either at the table or we’re on the menu.”
In an election, we have a real chance to have voice and input.
Others may say that teacher action in elections won’t matter, but we have to stamp out that kind of fatalistic belief that things are only done to teachers but never with teachers. The clearest lesson I took from teacher actions this spring in places like West Virginia, Arizona and Kentucky is that things don’t have to remain unchanged—but change only occurs when people have the courage and determination to push back on the negative policy choices that have been enacted for far too long on teachers and students.
So, regardless of how you choose to spend your time this summer, let’s all agree that all supporters of strong public education have an obligation to show up in the 2018 elections. Let’s take the first step in the primaries this summer. Together, let’s turn the tremors started in states by teachers this spring into an electoral earthquake in the fall.