Why We Are Red for Ed - NEA Today

We’re raising our voices together for our students, for our schools, and for ourselves as educators.

That’s why we’re wearing Red for Ed.

Why We Are Red for Ed

It’s about protecting students and public schools

By Mary Ellen Flannery and Amanda Litvinov

This is a moment: More than 75,000 Arizona educators turning the streets of Phoenix red with their crimson shirts this spring.

This is also a moment: Arizona educators delivering more than 270,000 signatures to state officials in July, demanding a say in whether to invest $700 million more in Arizona’s starving public schools.

These moments, joined with others in West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Colorado, and elsewhere, aren’t isolated. Together, they are shaping a national movement that will deliver more than 1,500 educator candidates and countless pro-public education voters to the polls this fall and, in the long term, protect the nation’s public schools and transform our unions.

  • February 22 - March 6

    West Virginia

    Educators in West Virginia rallied at the state capitol for nine days. Their action earned a 5% raise for educators, and the governor issued an executive order aimed at creating a long-term revenue fix to public employees’ insurance program.

  • April 2 and 13

    Kentucky

    After lawmakers slipped changes to teachers’ pensions into a bill about sewage, thousands of educators protested. The pension changes were signed into law, but educators secured an increase to per pupil SEEK funding to $4,000 per student, the highest dollar amount ever appropriated.

  • April 2 - 12

    Oklahoma

    Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin approved raises for teachers and education support professionals, and a $50 million increase in education funding — $150 million less than what is needed. Disappointed with the outcome of the 9-day walkout, a record number of educators are now running for state office.

  • April 26

    Colorado

    Colorado public schools are underfunded by $822 million, and per-student funding is $2,700 below the national average, so Colorado educators rallied, calling on state lawmakers to commit to reducing or freezing corporate tax breaks until the state’s per-student funding is restored to the national average. At the end of the legislative session, several bills were signed into law that increase education funding and address the educator shortage.

  • April 26 - May 3

    Arizona

    No state in the country had cut school funding more than Arizona. Between 2008 and 2015, state lawmakers cut per-student funding by 36.6 percent. So Arizona educators walked out for six days. The governor signed an education funding bill that will provide for a range of salary increases, averaging around 10%, and increases funding for new textbooks, upgraded technology, and infrastructure.

  • May 16

    North Carolina

    North Carolina teachers have lost 9.4% in pay since 2009 and per-student funding also hasn’t kept pace since the recession a decade ago. More than 20,000 educators marched on the state Capitol, resulting in a 6.2% raise for teachers. North Carolina educators are continuing the movement to hold elected leaders accountable for prioritizing corporate tax cuts instead of classrooms.

  • November 6

    Florida, North Carolina, Colorado, Hawaii, Utah

    In several states, voters will decide on key school funding issues as state ballot measures — the good, the bad, and the ugly — will determine whether students get the funds they deserve or schools will remain stuck in permanent recession.

Call It #RedForEd

The movement involves NEA educators, students, parents, and community members who are fed up with tattered textbooks and leaky ceilings, who think 1,430 students are too many for one school counselor to help, who want their children to get five days of school—not four—per week, and who are horrified to hear of teachers selling their blood to pay their bills. They think all students, no matter where they live, deserve better.

“We are fierce fighters who will stand up for ourselves and for our students and we will be heard!” declared NEA President Lily Eskelsen García at the NEA Representative Assembly this summer.

Nothing less than the future of public education is at stake. “I see public education being dismantled here,” says 24-year-old teacher Noah Karvelis, an Arizona music teacher who helped lead the largest walkout of educators in history.

“If we can hold back that charge, we will set the precedent. We can say it’s not happening here. We value public education.”

“#RedforEd speaks volumes to the power of an educator, the power of the voice of the people, and the power of unions.”

Margaret Chaney, Arizona teacher

“#RedforEd means getting involved. I’ve always been the kind of person who believes that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

Lawrence Lane, Oklahoma teacher

“#RedforEd means to me that we have decided we’re not going to sit down and take it. We’re going to make our schools the best that we possibly can for every student.”

Jennifer Aniano, Michigan teacher

“When we come together in solidarity in the Arizona Education Association, we have a powerful voice. We saw that with the #RedForEd movement. They could not ignore us.”

Joe Thomas, AEA president

“I fight for my students because I feel like in rural North Carolina those students deserve a chance. I want to make sure our students aren’t left out.”

Margaret Powell, North Carolina ESP

Power at the Polls

Oklahoma educators aren’t backing down, either. This spring, they also had a moment: A nine-day #RedForEd strike that ended when lawmakers approved a historic tax increase—their first in 28 years—to pay for $6,100 average pay raises for teachers and $1,250 raises for education support professionals. It was a good first step, but didn’t fix the broader issue of school funding, including the state legislature’s decades-old tax cuts for the wealthy that cost Oklahoma’s public schools about $1 billion each year.

“We got here by electing the wrong people to office,” says Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) President Alicia Priest. “We have the opportunity to make our voices heard at the ballot box.”

“Teachers are nation-builders. That’s our job: To effect change, to improve outcomes. Isn’t that the same job of Congress?”

Jahana Hayes, educator and congressional candidate

It’s essential to vote for pro-public education candidates. West Virginia Education Association (WVEA) members proved this to the nation during their nine-day statewide strike that closed every public school in West Virginia and lit the fire for #RedForEd across the U.S.

“A surprising number of West Virginia educators sat out the last election, or voted against their own self-interest,” says West Virginia high school teacher Jonas Knotts. “They couldn’t see how elections directly affect their work and their students… But eventually, people started to ask themselves, ‘What is my future here? What is the future for my students, my children?’ And they realized that unless action is taken, there is not going to be a future.”

The West Virginia strike was decades in the making. Legislative tax cuts led to funding cuts, and great teachers were leaving the state in droves. The problem had been obvious for years. But the strike pointed to a solution: Replace lawmakers who don’t care about students with those who will.

This spring, 90 percent of WVEA-recommended candidates won their primary elections. “Educators are really starting to see the power they possess. We have a voting bloc that, if we turn out to the polls, can out vote anybody,” says Knotts.

In Oklahoma, educators have gone a step further. This spring, an estimated 112 Oklahoma educators, administrators, and retired teachers, as well as spouses or children of educators, filed to run for state office, including 48 OEA members. Fifty-six advanced in the primary elections to the ballot this November.

“Unfortunately, [educators] were met with a lot of friction and a lot of resistance” when they met with state legislators this spring, said OEA member Carri Hicks, a fourth-grade teacher who won her primary for state senate, to a KOCO reporter. That experience shows her—and many others—that they need a real seat at the table.

Many educators who are running for local, state, or federal office have received how-to advice from NEA’s See Educators Run program. In Oklahoma, OEA gave each member-candidate $250 in campaign funds, highlighted their campaigns in social media, and hosted candidate forums.

What's Next?

#RedForEd doesn’t end with the election season. Threats to public schools and students, in the form of dangerous funding cuts, school vouchers, and for-profit charter schools, are well-funded and persistent. In Arizona, conservative lawmakers cut school funding by more than a third over the past decade. In Colorado, thanks to lawmakers, more than half of school districts are operating on a four-day week.

Students deserve more—and NEA’s #RedForEd will get it for them.

“Unions are vital,” says Arizona’s Karvelis. “That’s where I see this going. The Facebook pages [which kicked off Arizona’s #RedForEd movement] are great for mobilizing people, but they’re not great for long-term organizing. We need to make the union what it can be. We need to get people plugged in, we need to grow it, and make sure it reflects what the people want. And that’s just a matter of getting people involved.”

This summer’s anti-union Supreme Court decision in the Janus case has been applauded by pro-corporate, anti-worker activists as the death knell for unions. No way, says Eskelsen García. “We’re not going anywhere,” she promises.

As #RedForEd grows in strength and vitality, Karvelis says he sees NEA members defending public education, and making sure all students and educators get what they need. “It’s so powerful when people come together,” he says.

“To go through an experience like #RedForEd, you come out the other side and say, ‘Oh, this is what a union is about. This is what solidarity looks like.’”

See Educators Run

The #RedForEd movement to re-invest in public schools started in the streets last spring and has steadily marched toward its next historic opportunity: the midterm elections.

More than 1,500 educators across the country have filed to run for office for state legislature races and higher federal and statewide seats (with many more running for city council, school board, and other seats). Some were inspired by #RedForEd, while others had long planned to run for office. But all were energized to see educators and communities come together to demand an end to the era of austerity for public schools.

These educator-candidates are Republicans and Democrats. They live in cities and suburbs and rural communities. They are running for school board and state house and Congress. What they share is a belief that we must re-invest in our public schools.

Jennifer Esau

Special education teacher, Claremont Elementary, Claremore, Oklahoma

Years of experience: 19
Running for: Oklahoma Senate

What inspired you to run?
In 2014, I joined my fellow Oklahoma Education Association members to rally for education at the state Capitol, and we were so hopeful that legislators were going to commit more funding for education. Our schools were starving. But nothing changed that session, or in 2015. That’s when I stopped merely thinking about running and started strategizing.

What sets you apart from your opponent?
My opponent has said “teachers are not my base” as he walks by. Our educators and our students deserve so much better.

What lessons from the Oklahoma educator walkouts did you take to your campaign?
We energized a lot of educators who have never been vocal before. We forced legislators to listen to us and start putting more into our schools. It was just a first step, but in November I believe we will see a whole new level of change as educators win their elections.

Top priority if elected:
We have to get real about the relationship between corporate tax breaks and education funding if we are going to restore our public schools.

Joseph Sorce

Retired educator, Fayetteville, North Carolina

Years of experience: 37
Running for: Cumberland County School Board

Last year you retired from teaching. What’s next?
It was always gratifying advocating for educators and students as president of my local association. I knew I wanted to continue speaking up for public education after I retired, and that’s why I decided to run for school board.

What gives you hope about the political process?
Our local filled two buses and went to the rally of more than 20,000 people in Raleigh this May. There are more people willing to stand up and challenge the conservative point of view we’ve gotten for so long from our state legislature.

How would your students describe you?
Goofy, strict, and always there for them.

Tell us about a time that your students taught you:
I had one elementary student who was always late or absent and I couldn’t get a hold of anyone at the house. One day the bus driver saw him in a police car because his parents were being arrested on drug charges. I did all I could to make sure he felt safe at school. But that opened my eyes to how much is going on with some of our students.

Denise Gray

Special needs classroom paraprofessional, Crawford Middle School, Lexington, Kentucky

Years of experience: 5
Running for: Kentucky Senate

You’ve gone from law school graduate to paraeducator for special needs students to political candidate. Tell us about your journey.
I realized I love working with students more than dealing with the law. I’ve never looked back. I felt compelled to enter politics after Kentucky passed a charter school law and mishandled our public pension system. But the greatest impetus came from one student.

How so?
I found her crying in the library because she was scared she couldn’t do anything with her life. I shared that my mother is from South America like her parents, and my family is far from wealthy, but I’ve succeeded, and she can, too. It made me realize we can’t just tell our students they can do anything, we have to show them that someone from their same neighborhood and socioeconomic status can rise.

What has been the toughest part about running for office?
Fund raising. My opponent is backed by the billionaire Koch brothers. Dark money is pouring into his campaign. I can’t win this campaign with dollars; I can only win on my values and my work ethic.

How would your students describe you?
Genuine and caring, with high expectations.

Vera Miller

Music teacher, Culloden Elementary School, Culloden, West Virginia

Years of experience: 16
Running for: West Virginia House of Delegates

How did you decide to run for office?
I’ve gotten really angry about the climate of disrespect for education and for educators. In January, as the legislative session was about to begin there were all these anti-public education issues coming up. I called my friend and blurted out that I should just run for office. She offered to pay the filing fees. It was the last day to file, so I jumped in the car and filed my paperwork.

What has surprised you about running for office?
First what hasn’t surprised me: the lack of support from my own party. I’ve been a registered Republican voter for 20 years, but I’m not conservative enough for the state leadership. But I’ve been delightfully surprised by the amount of support I’ve received from the community.

Favorite political moment of the past 10 years:
The day our governor proposed a 5 percent raise and asked all the educators to go back to work, we said no, because your word is not good enough. We stood together. Everything could have fallen apart right there, but instead we had the biggest moment of solidarity I’ve ever seen.

What’s the next step forward for #RedForEd?
Every one of us should be talking to other voters about why we have to elect the right people. What party they are from doesn’t matter. It’s about getting pro-public education candidates across the finish line.

Hayden Shamel

Foreign language and literature teacher, Lakeside High School, Lake Catherine, Arkansas

Years of experience: 14
Running for: U.S. House of Representatives

You’ve long been politically engaged—but what prompted you to run for Congress?
Congress has failed to fully fund Title I and IDEA and make other critical investments in our communities. We tell our kids they can compete on a global scale, but then we can’t even get broadband Internet access and reliable cell phone service to rural districts like mine? When you have an administration that doesn’t make public education a priority, that tells me we need more educators in office.

What has been the toughest part about running for office?
Spending time apart from my 4-year-old daughter and my husband has been the hardest part. I live in a heavily gerrymandered district that covers 33 counties, almost half the state of Arkansas, so I have to travel a lot. But I’ve been blessed with support from my family and incredible all-volunteer staff.

What sets you apart from your opponent?
I don’t think we could be more different. He supports the policies of the Trump Administration on issues including immigration. He wants to build the wall. He pushes divisive cultural issues. Meanwhile, I’ve taught English and life skills to newcomers in our schools and I see how policy can either support or hinder their success. I know this country is at its best when we are hopeful and kind, and I know I’m not alone in that belief.

Words your students would use to describe you:
Smart, funny, strict, caring.

John Mannion

Biology teacher, West Genesee High School, Camillus, New York

Years of experience: 25
Running for: New York Senate

How will your classroom experience benefit you if you are elected?
Teachers are good at maintaining relationships and respecting different points of view. Working with students for 25 years makes me better connected with younger people and where they want society to go in terms of their government, the environment, and transportation, for example. In the end, we’re not leading for us, we’re leading for them.

What do your students think of your run for office?
They already started calling me “Mr. Senator.” They are engaged and I believe they will be voters for sure. If I win my race and have to be away from the classroom, I will miss how excited they get about class projects and all the great questions they raise.

Favorite teaching moment:
There are so many, but the greatest of all happened outside the classroom. My oldest son was diagnosed with autism at an early age. My wife—who is also an educator—and I established an intensive program for him. He worked so hard and just kept gaining skills. Thinking about his success, I realize I already have the greatest achievement of my life, even if I get elected.

Top priority if elected:
Making sure that education funding benefits students with a rich curriculum that includes the arts, science, and social studies.

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